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.
Prayer for One Entering Natural Organic Reduction
Eloheinu ve’Elohei Avoteinu ve’Imoteinu
Our God and God of our Ancestors,
You have taught us about time and transition,
The rotation of the seasons,
The alternating of light and darkness,
The turning of the earth on its axis,
The intersection of land and sea and air,
The cycle of life and death.
You have taught us love, compassion, justice and generosity.
You have taught us, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
You have taught us, “to till and to tend” this precious land.
You have taught us that individual lives end, but life itself continues.
That matter is finite, but the spirit is infinite.
And you have taught us, in your wisdom and through ours,
That just as our spirit joins the greater spirit of the universe
So, too, can our matter give life to other matter.
Our God and God of our Ancestors,
Our beloved [NAME] has left us.
They have chosen the path of adamAdam is the first human being created by God. Symbolizes: Creation, humankind.
Human to Earth.
Their body will return to us in a new, life-giving form.
During this time,
Keep them and watch them.
Receive them in peace under the wings of your Presence.
Join their soul with the bonds of everlasting life,
And may their transformation be a step toward redemption.
As we read in the siddurLit. Order of prayers. The prayer book.
אַתָּה גִּבּור לְעולָם אֲדנָי. מְחַיֵּה מֵתִים אַתָּה רַב לְהושִׁיעַ
מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶסֶד
מְחַיֶּה מֵתִים בְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים
סומֵךְ נופְלִים. וְרופֵא חולִים וּמַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים
וּמְקַיֵּם אֱמוּנָתו לִישֵׁנֵי עָפָר
מִי כָמוךָ בַּעַל גְּבוּרות וּמִי דומֶה לָּךְ
מֶלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִיחַ יְשׁוּעָה
Your might is eternal, God, You abound in redemption through the renewal of life.
You support the living with lovingkindness,
And sustain the dead with great compassion,
You raise up the fallen and You heal the sick,
You liberate those bound and maintain Your faith with those who have passed away.
Who is like You, Source of Strength?
Who can be compared to You, Power of Life and Death,
The One Who causes salvation to sprout, like shoots and buds from the earth?
May [NAME]’s life continue to sprout and bear fruit,
In the hearts and minds of those who survive,
In the earth and plants that [NAME] will nourish.
From the present to the future,
From this world to the next,
From generation to generation.
A blessing for us all, forever.
And let us say, Amen.