“Resomation”: The Liquid Disposal of Remains



“Resomation” is a commercial name for the chemical process known as alkaline hydrolysis, in which bodies are chemically reduced by means of pressure and warm alkaline water leaving behind only porous white bone remains and waste-water.[1] The process takes two to three hours for completion. The cemetery industry also calls this process “Bio-Cremation”[2] because it produces a similar result to cremation with far less negative environmental impact.[3]

I ask the following three questions:

Since “Resomation” uses water instead of fire to consume the body (except the bones), does it circumvent our people’s historic, cultural and religious bias against cremation?

Given the traditional halachic requirement that the corpse be buried with all its parts in a grave or crypt, would “Resomation” (in which everything but the bones are liquefied and purified, but not saved for burial) be prohibited in Reform Judaism?

Given, as well, the increasing dearth of and high expense of cemetery space in large urban areas, may the bone remains be interred in an already occupied family grave or crypt? If so, what requirements would there be in order to respect the principle of the separation between bodies in a formerly single grave? (Rabbi John Rosove, Hollywood, CA)

  1. Alkaline Hydrolysis (“Resomation”): Is It Acceptable? In asking whether alkaline hydrolysis might be acceptable on Jewish grounds, our sho’el suggests an analogy to cremation. We should begin therefore with a look at the development of both the traditional Jewish and Reform Jewish positions on cremation. Our responsum no. 5766.2, “When a Parent Requests Cremation,”[4] contains a detailed discussion of our topic. The following is a brief summary of its conclusions.
  2. Although burial has been the historical Israelite and Jewish practice for disposing of human remains, cremation is not explicitly prohibited in the classical Biblical, Talmudic, or halakhic sources. It is only in the nineteenth century, when cremation becomes more widespread in European society, that we find Orthodox rabbis speaking out against it and finding reasons to prohibit it.
  3. Reform Judaism does not prohibit cremation. Our Conference adopted a resolution to this effect in 1892; that resolution has never been repealed, amended, or superseded by another Conference vote; and our subsequent halakhic literature (i.e., our responsa, guides to religious practice, and rabbi’s manuals) have repeatedly noted that cremation is an “acceptable” and “permissible” practice for Reform Jews.
  4. On the other hand, that same Reform halakhic literature has in recent decades significantly modified its previously affirmative stance. Though we still do not “prohibit” cremation, we actively discourage it for two reasons: first, burial is the normative traditional Jewish practice, and second, after the Holocaust cremation has taken on deeply negative associations with one of the darkest periods of our people’s history.

Based on the above, the sho’el’s analogy argues that “Resomation” should be at least as acceptable as cremation in Reform Judaism. Cremation, despite our discouragement of it, remains officially a permissible practice within our movement. Alkaline hydrolysis is certainly no more objectionable on moral or religious grounds than cremation. Indeed, since much of our recent turn against cremation stems from its symbolic evocation of the Nazi crematoria, it follows that “Resomation,” which does not involve fire, would be even less objectionable.

That argument, however, does not account for the other – and, to our mind, the stronger – reason for our opposition to cremation, namely that burial is the normative traditional Jewish practice. “Normative” in this context means first of all that we endorse burial precisely because it is Jewish, that is, the way in which Jews have for many centuries chosen to consign the remains of their loved ones, and that we find it meaningful to identify our own practice with that of our people.[5] “Normative” also means that burial is the specific means by which our tradition seeks to realize the value of k’vod hamet, the dignified treatment of the dead. And by that same token, our tradition has come to identify cremation, the reduction of the body to ashes, as an act of nivul hamet or bizayon hamet, the contemptible or disrespectful treatment of the dead.

This last point is crucial. Values like k’vod hamet and nivul/bizayon hamet are not given to objective definition. It is tradition, the collected wisdom and experience of a particular historical culture or community, which fills these lofty but vague concepts with specific meaning. This, quite simply, is why these universal values, relevant and applicable to all cultures, are observed differently in each of them. For example, the liberal Western tradition holds cremation to be an honorable and dignified means for the disposal of remains, while the Jewish tradition, which sees “a huge gulf between peacefully decaying in the ground and the roaring destruction of the cremation oven,”[6] differs fundamentally from that of the contemporary West on this issue. We Reform Jews, active participants in both these cultural traditions, cannot escape the fact that they differ on this issue. Ultimately, we must choose between them, for we can give substance and specificity to terms like k’vod hamet and bizayon hamet, the honorable or disgraceful treatment of the dead, only when we work within the boundaries of some particular cultural framework.[7]

For the members of this Committee, the choice is clear: we seek to mourn our dead and to honor them as Jews, that is, in accordance with the customs and traditions of our people. Accordingly, we do not see much of a distinction between cremation and alkaline hydrolysis. The latter, true enough, was not utilized by the Nazis.[8] But like cremation, it is a chemical process aimed at the rapid decomposition of human remains. Like cremation, it is a radical departure from traditional Jewish burial. And as with cremation, there is “a huge gulf” between the slow decay of burial and the rapid decomposition achieved through chemical inducement. Since the two procedures are so comparable, we cannot say that Reform Judaism would treat them differently. Thus, while it would not necessarily prohibit “Resomation” any more than it prohibits cremation, it would and should actively discourage the practice.

  1. Burial of Remains from “Resomation.” The second part of our sh’elah asks whether alkaline hydrolysis is prohibited on the grounds that the liquefied remains (other than the bones) are discarded and not saved for burial. Our response is the same we would give to a question concerning cremation: whatever remains survive the chemical decomposition process should be buried, in (partial) fulfillment of the traditional mitzvah to bury the dead.[9] Since, in theory, the liquefied remains can be preserved[10] (unlike cremation, where the incinerated remains are emitted into the atmosphere), every effort should be made to bury them along with the bones of the deceased.
  2. Burial of Remains in Same Grave or Crypt. Jewish tradition generally forbids the burial of more than one body in a single place. Each must have its own resting place.[11] The same should be true in our case: the remains from cremation or alkaline hydrolysis should be buried separately. If limitations of space are indeed an issue, Jewish tradition permits the burial of corpses or coffins on top of one another, provided that they are separated by at least six handbreadths of earth.[12]
  3. A Concluding Note. In his third question, our sho’el mentions the environmental and financial concerns that are often raised in discussion of cremation and other alternatives to traditional burial. Regardless of our attitudes toward cremation and “Resomation,” individuals should not feel driven to consider them for reasons of cost or care for the natural environment. While this is not the place to deal with this subject at length, we should stress that Judaism affirms the values of affordable[13] and ecologically-friendly burial.[14] Our communities can and should work to provide access to burial practices that reflect these teachings of our tradition.
  1. “Resomation” is specifically the registered trademark of Resomation Ltd. (http://www.resomation.com , accessed June 12, 2014). Other names for the process include “aquamation,” the registered trademark of the Australia-based Aquamation Industries (http://www.aquamationindustries.com , accessed June 12, 2014). The sh’elah’s description of the process is based upon the details provided at both websites. See as well Ruth Davis Konigsberg, “Resomation,” New York Times, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9504E1DD1E39F930A25751C1A96F9C8B63 (posted Dec. 13, 2009, accessed June 12, 2014) and Marina Kamenev, “Aquamation: A Greener Alternative to Cremation?”, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2022206,00.html (posted Sept.28, 2010, accessed June 12, 2014).
  2. The trade name that Matthews International’s cremation division gives to its version of the process; see http://www.biocremationinfo.com (accessed June 12, 2014).
  3. See Davis, note 1, above: “(‘Resomation’) uses about a sixth of the energy of cremation and has a much smaller carbon footprint, according to Sandy Sullivan, the managing director of Resomation, a company in Scotland that has designed a resomation machine.”
  4. Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (New York: CCAR, 2010), vol. 2, pp. 193-207, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5766-2.
  5. See our responsum no. 5766.2 (preceding note, at p. 199): “This is what we mean by the positive reevaluation of ‘tradition.’ … We are now more inclined than ever before to adopt or to preserve a ritual observance precisely because it is ‘Jewish.’ We are more likely to regard a practice’s traditional pedigree as a reason for maintaining it, especially when there are no compelling moral or aesthetic arguments against that practice. We are therefore today more likely – though not obligated – to oppose cremation on the grounds that burial is a mitzvah, the ‘normative’ Jewish way of disposing of human remains.”
  6. The phrase is that of a corresponding member of this Committee, who concludes: “There can be no doubt that cremation is the very antithesis of k’vod hamet.”
  7. See our responsum no. 5766.2 (note 4, above, at p. 200): “such terms can only be defined from within a particular social context; to reach these definitions, we must choose to work within a particular culture’s set of values and affirmations.”
  8. And see our responsum no. 5766.2 (note 4, above), section 1, “Cremation in Jewish Law”: it is worth remembering that, although our classical texts do not explicitly prohibit cremation, opposition to it among Orthodox halakhic authorities solidified in the nineteenth century well before the Shoah.
  9. B. Sanhedrin 46b, on Deuteronomy 21:23; Yad, Hil. Avel, 12:1. On the burial of cremains in a Jewish cemetery see R. Walter Jacob, New American Reform Responsa (New York: CCAR Press, 1992), nos. 191-192, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/narr-304-305 and http://ccarnet.org/responsa/narr-306-307.
  10. In an addendum to his original question, our sho’el, Rabbi John Rosove, makes this point, on the basis of a conversation with a cemetery manager.
  11. The one great exception is a small child “who slept with its parents (or grandparents) in life.” That child may be buried along with his or her parent or grandparent. See Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 262:3 and R. Solomon B. Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1963), no. 29.
  12. Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 262:4.
  13. See R. Shimeon Maslin, Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR Press, 1979), p. 55: we should follow the example of Rabban Gamliel, who instructed that he be buried in simple linen shrouds rather than expensive ones to demonstrate that burial need not impose a crushing financial burden upon the mourners (B. Mo`ed Katan 27b). And see the conclusion of our responsum no. 5766.2 (note 4, above). “By ‘traditional burial,’ we do not mean to endorse many of the practices that, although associated with burial in the public mind, would be deemed as excessive or inappropriate by many of us. Among these are such elaborate and unnecessary steps as embalming, expensive caskets, and the like. Jewish tradition emphasizes simplicity and modesty in burial practices; individuals should not feel driven to choose cremation in order to avoid the expense and elaborate display that all too often accompany contemporary burial.”
  14. See the discussion (section 3, above) on limitations of space. We have encountered this problem numerous times throughout our history, and the tradition has proven itself capable of arriving at solutions to the problem of cramped cemetery space. In addition, there is no theoretical reason why Jewish tradition cannot accommodate the contemporary movement toward “green burial” – that is, burial in the absence of concrete vaults, expensive coffins, embalming, and the like (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/11/us-usa-florida-burial-idUSBRE94A05620130511, accessed June 18, 2014; http://www.greenburials.org, accessed June 18, 2014). Indeed, a simple reading of our sources indicates that “green burial” is Jewish burial, the way that our classic texts envision the mitzvah.