Washington state became the first state to legalize natural organic reduction (NOR)—aka “human composting”—in 2019. When that became a reality, congregants asked me about Jewish approaches to this process. It was a wonderful invitation to think creatively and share ideas about how to incorporate traditional Jewish ritual and liturgy for this new and non-traditional process. It was mostly theoretical until recently, when a beloved congregant died and had chosen NOR for her end-of-life plan.
In short, human composting is a process by which a body is placed in a vessel with other organic material, and after several weeks becomes usable compost which can then be placed on private property or conservation land. Some of my initial thoughts on this practice and Jewish tradition are captured in an article on Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations.
I wrote this prayer for a small private ceremony at my congregant’s home to “send off” her body for composting. (Her actual placement in the composting vessel was witnessed and ritualized by a few friends, evocative of the work of a hevra kadisha, burial society.) At the public memorial, I again read this prayer at the point one would normally inter a body.
As this practice becomes widespread (several other states have legalized it), there will be more opportunities for creative Jewish ritual and liturgy to honor this choice.