QUICKLIME ON THE BODY
A congregant is frightened by a negative fantasy of bodily decomposition after death. For this reason she plans to be cremated. The only way she would agree to interment is if quicklime were to be sprinkled over her remains to speed decomposition. She makes this a condition for ground burial. What is your opinion of this practice? (Asked by Rabbi Sheldon W. Moss, San Diego, California.)
YOUR QUESTION is whether, according to Jewish legal tradition, it is permissible to sprinkle quicklime over the remains to speed decomposition. I can answer you first indirectly. Speeding decomposition is definitely in accordance with the spirit of Jewish law. The rabbis had to explain away the fact that the body of Joseph was embalmed to delay decomposition. More positively, they are in favor of direct contact of the body with the earth to hasten decomposition. Therefore it is only with difficulty that they have come to permit coffins at all.
Now, more specifically, there is a responsum (#389) by the great Spanish authority Solomon ben Aderet as follows: A dying man asked his sons to bury him in the family plot in Oran, but he died in Algiers, and there was a war going on, so it was unsafe to transport the body and he was buried in Algiers. After a brief period the sons asked the rabbi whether they might disinter their father’s body, to fulfill his dying wish and bury him in Oran. However, the body was only partially decomposed and could not be handled. They asked, therefore, whether they might put quicklime on the remains to complete the decomposition of the flesh. The rabbi gave his full consent to this. In fact, you may say that putting lime on the body to hasten decay has virtually become a Jewish custom among certain traditions in Jewish life. Note the following:
Isserles (in Yore Deah 363:2) says, “It is permitted to put lime upon him in order to hasten the decay of the flesh.” Jacob Reischer, the famous Rabbi of Metz (1870), in his Shevus Yaacov (II, #97), speaks of a case in which the government prohibited burial in the Jewish cemetery and buried the dead out in the field. He recommended that they follow the precedent of Solomon ben Aderet to put lime on the body so that they would be able to transfer it to the security of the regular Jewish cemetery. In fact, it has become a custom, especially among the Sephardim, to follow the practice of using quicklime.
So you see that Jewish tradition opposes anything which delays decomposition of the flesh, and, specifically, great rabbis gave their clear permission to hasten decomposition by the use of quicklime.