headshot of Holly Blue Hawkins, and older white woman, inset in a larger picture of a cemetery
Holly Blue Hawkins (inset) advocates for more environmentally friendly Jewish burials, such as the ones that take place at Gan Yarok in Mill Valley (background)

Expert in Jewish burials is devoted to making them more ‘green’

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In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Holly Blue Hawkins is laying the groundwork to make Jewish burials — which already employ some of the most ecologically friendly burial techniques — even more green.

Hawkins, 71, is the rosha (head) of the chevra kadisha (a group of Jews that prepares deceased for burial and assists the family) and the cemeterian at Temple Beth El in Aptos, where she is on staff. As a tangent, she’s the volunteer manager of Jewish burials at Benito & Azzaro, a non-Jewish mortuary in Santa Cruz that includes a section for Jewish burials.

In 2019, after working nearly 30 years in Jewish end-of-life care, Hawkins was nearly finished with fulfilling a rigorous course of chevra kadisha education through the Gamliel Institute, an online Jewish end-of-life training institute based in Maryland.

All that was left was to make a final project.

She decided to build a new course of study — to fill a void she saw in the institute’s course offerings. She set about designing a curriculum that she, as a student, was immensely curious about: running a Jewish green burial cemetery.

Thanks to that project, Gamliel — an authoritative center for studying, training and advocacy on Jewish end-of-life practices since 2010 — will now offer such a course. And Hawkins will be teaching it, beginning in September.

The premise?

“What we do below ground level is inherently green,” Hawkins said of traditional Jewish burials. “Above ground is where we can start doing better.”

For instance, traditional Jewish law requires the body of the deceased be buried in the ground to naturally decompose into the earth. But while that approach is “inherently green,” some cemeteries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, use concrete grave liners that prevent the decomposition process and are harmful to the surrounding soil.

Traditional Jewish burials also forbid the use of embalming fluids in the veins of the deceased, a process that is used in other traditions to preserve the body for open-casket viewing. Those chemicals end up being absorbed into groundwater and are released as toxins.

When I dove into this whole thing, it was really a life-changing experience.

So although many Jewish burials get a lot right when it comes to harm reduction on the planet, there’s room for improvement, Hawkins noted.

She explained that according to Jewish burial tradition, chevra kadisha are taught to focus squarely on caring for the deceased, but “what about nature? What about the natural surroundings?”

In her 12-week course, which will be taught online, Hawkins’ plans to spend weeks covering the nuts and bolts of traditional Jewish burial practices, including preparing the body for burial — before coming to her favorite subject: the “gravedigger’s handbook,” as she called it.

That’s where green burial comes into play.

She explained there are three tarps to be used in the digging process. One is for delicately placing the lawn, or “carpeting” as she called it, that will be replanted once the body is buried. The second tarp holds the first layer of dirt, the subsoil, where microbes and fungi live, those “yummy little guys,” Hawkins said with enthusiasm and a sense of genuine appreciation for the ecosystem that will eventually help the body decompose into the earth.

Finally, the third tarp gets piled with the deepest layer, the mineral layer. The entire grave is dug to be 3 to 3½ feet deep, rather than a standard 6-foot grave, “because that’s really all we need. We’re still down in there where the microbial action is happening,” Hawkins said.

The bottom of the grave, she added, is blanketed with tree trimmings, or perhaps alfalfa, wood chips and/or straw, natural materials to make a “beautiful, respectful” homemade covering that also introduces biomass into the grave.

“It needs that biomass to really be able to put it to work, the human composting,” Hawkins explained. “What we’re [basically] doing is creating a lovely compost bed for that body to return to the earth in an optimized environment.”

Some ultra-green burials use woven baskets and woven blankets instead of wooden caskets, she said.

The flowers planted graveside by loved ones also can pose environmental hazards by introducing nonnative plants into the environment. It’s the responsibility of visitors to research the native plants of the land before planting them, and not just plant them “just because grandma really loved tulips,”Hawkins said.

Hawkins’ course at Gamliel is the newest one in several years, according to David Zinner, the institute’s founder and former executive director. Environmentally conscious burial has been a topic broached in Gamliel’s lessons since its start 12 years ago, Zinner noted, but Hawkins’ course goes deeper, offering clear steps for cemeteries and chevra kadisha groups to take. As it stands, fewer than half of Jewish cemeteries, Zinner estimated, have adopted the enhanced green burial techniques for which Hawkins is advocating.

“We have a long way to go,” he said.

That being said, green Jewish burials have started to take root in recent years. In Mill Valley, for example, Gan Yarok, a Jewish section at Fernwood Cemetery consecrated in 2010, claims to be America’s first green Jewish cemetery (Fernwood itself is one of the only natural and green burial cemeteries in California, according to its website).

Participants at the consecration of the Gan Yarok cemetery in Mill Valley in 2010 (Photo/Amanda Pazornik)
Participants at the consecration of the Gan Yarok cemetery in Mill Valley in 2010 (Photo/Amanda Pazornik)

There, all graves are hand-dug, and no concrete liners or embalming fluids are allowed. Caskets are optional, and if used, must be biodegradable. Gravestones and grave markers, if chosen, must be natural boulders and engraved simply, according to the Gan Yarok website.

In June, Hawkins will be leading a virtual workshop on green Jewish burials at a conference for Jewish burial leaders hosted by Kavod v’Nichum, the Gamliel Institute’s umbrella organization. It will be based on her green Jewish burial masterclass she co-created and taught earlier this year. It will also be a snapshot of what her upcoming course will feature.

Hawkins said she’s hoping her lessons will impact participants in the same way developing the course has impacted her.

“When I dove into this whole thing,” Hawkins said, “it was really a life-changing experience.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.