Hillside introduces eco-friendly burial option


As the gates opened recently to Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, the famed Jewish cemetery next to the 405 Freeway as renowned for its verdant lawns as its celebrity occupants, there appeared in almost every direction something sharply out of character: brown, withered lawns.

Was this a consequence of California’s drought? 

“Once a year we de-thatch,” Paul Goldstein, Hillside’s general manager, explained as he led a golf cart tour of the cemetery’s 45 usually very green, grassy acres. “In order to keep it looking as good as it does throughout the rest of year, we scalp it down to the very bottom once a year. We don’t like to do it, because then it looks like this, but the families have gotten used to it.” 

The burnt caramel lawns stood in stark contrast — literally and figuratively — to Hillside’s latest addition, and the reason for the day’s visit: a tour of the brand-new eco-friendly “green” burial section, aptly called Gan Eden, Hebrew for “Garden of Eden.” 

Located on the southeastern side of the cemetery, just north of Centinela Avenue, Gan Eden includes 110 burial plots offering vault-free, concrete-free, casket-free burial. It is the cemetery’s first strategic effort to conserve energy and eliminate the use of embalming toxins. With this new venture, Hillside, owned and operated by the reform congregation Temple Israel of Hollywood, has become the first cemetery in Los Angeles (and certainly the first Jewish cemetery) to offer a burial option certified by the Green Burial Council (GBC), a homespun advocacy organization that sets environmentally sustainable standards for funeral homes, cemeteries and mortuaries. 

The idea was first hatched three years ago. “We were seeing the trend of eco-friendliness, and we have a segment of the community in L.A. that is very interested in that,” Goldstein said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on trying to adapt to what the community is asking for — we’re not here to tell people what they need to do; we’re here to give them options to do what they want to do.”

The main difference between Gan Eden and the rest of Hillside — and, really, most American cemeteries — is the absence of concrete vaults. Those are the giant concrete slabs implanted into the ground to keep the soil level over time, and into which coffins are inserted. Their use is de rigueur in what is often called the “death-care industry.” 

“We’re forcing people into boxes within boxes and that just shouldn’t be the case,” Joe Sehee, founder of the GBC, said. Sehee estimates that the industry-wide practice is responsible for putting about 1.5 million tons of concrete into the earth. “If you were to take a look at what a cemetery looks like underneath [the surface], it would look like a parking lot,” he said. To make matters worse, Sehee argued, the manufacturing and transport involved in getting the vaults to their destinations and then into the ground produces enormous amounts of carbon emissions. 

Gan Eden will have none of that. Plus, more prohibitions: No embalming with toxic chemicals (proven to increase the risk of cancer in those who prepare bodies for burial); no energy-intensive cremation (a forbidden practice for Jews anyway) and no metal caskets. Instead, Gan Eden will offer various options for shroud-only burial, including silk, hand-woven shrouds and an array of fragrant natural washes such as neroli/orange blossom or lavender/rue for use during taharah burial preparation rituals. 

It all adds up to a happy twist of fate: Hillside’s efforts at going green have actually turned Gan Eden into one of L.A.’s most authentic options for traditional Jewish burial. 

“When it comes down to it, Jewish burial is green burial,” Hillside’s manager, Goldstein said. Staring out at the one-eighth-of-an-acre sliver of land that is now Gan Eden, Goldstein marveled that it is now the only place of its kind in all of California. 

Since they were made available last July, 13 plots have been sold. 

Cipra Nemeth and her husband, Scott (who requested his last name be omitted), were among the first to purchase plots in Gan Eden. As they neared 60, both decided it was time to plan for the future. When they saw an ad in the pages of the Journal for Hillside’s green burial, they arranged to take a tour.

“Growing up in England, when a person is buried, they go into a plain pine box straight into the ground,” Nemeth said. “The idea of being surrounded by concrete is a) not my culture, and b) disgusting; and to both of us, so not Jewish.”

Nemeth said she was both surprised and relieved to discover an option that met their religious needs; the green aspect was merely a happy side effect: “We were seeking traditional burial,” she admitted, “but it’s nice that it’s also eco [-friendly]. For example, we have solar panels on our roof; we drive hybrid cars, my husband has a [Nissan] Leaf. We try to be eco-conscious, so it’s nice that it piggy-backs onto that.”

So far, the option does not come cheap. Commensurate with the rest of the park’s pricing, a single plot in Hillside’s Gan Eden costs approximately $43,000; a double plot is slightly higher, at $52,500. Yet those who can afford the Westside resting-place real estate say it is well worth the chance to be buried in a way that honors both their religious commitments and God’s creation.

Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who leads Young Israel of Century City, pointed out that concrete vaults are not actually “halachically problematic.” He cited an opinion from 20th-century Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, which determined concrete is pulverized earth, rendering the vault “not a big problem.”

“It’s ironic,” Muskin added, “that what the halachah has said for thousands of years is now coming back via the green movement.”

But what of the harm it causes?

“I would certainly prefer that they don’t have vaults,” Muskin said. 

“That’s what they do in Eretz Yisra’el.” But, he said, “There is no halachic impediment. These questions were resolved years and years and years ago. These are not modern questions.” 

On the other hand, some less observant Jews believe the spirit of Jewish law does not condone earth-harming practices, like the use of concrete. 

“The thing that really pisses me off is the concrete vault,” Scott said. “Most people think [it] is for sanitary reasons, but it’s actually for keeping the ground flat. It’s all about, you know, having a pretty cemetery. So you’re gonna put somebody’s body in [a concrete vault] and keep it from returning to the earth for 150 to 200 years so that the grass looks pretty? It’s absolutely insane.”

Hillside, of course, has always prided itself on its aesthetically spectacular campus. Even with the brown grass on the day of this visit, acre after acre was covered with soaring trees spilling colors — lemon, tangerine, red and raspberry — strewn across the lawn. Near the top of Hillside’s property is its most exclusive Garden of Solomon, a luscious hilltop space built in 2008 that features cascading fountains, swirling garden pathways and secluded family estates modeled after Roman porticos. One fountain-side estate with a gated entry and room for 12 family burial plots sells for nearly $1.5 million. 

Goldstein admits Hillside is deeply invested — philosophically and financially — in its own beauty. “Our level of landscaping and maintenance is above most, and we’re known for color. Every quarter we change out our color so there are new colors and fresh plantings. We really invest the money people spend here back into the park, and the people we serve truly appreciate how we maintain it.” 

But in drought-conscious California, this approach may need revision. “Think about the amount of carbon associated with just the watering and mowing,” GBC’s Sehee said. Now, concomitant with its new green endeavor, Hillside is attempting to find the balance for the first time between environmental conscientiousness and luxury. 

Gan Eden itself hardly looks like a desert landscape. The space is still lushly landscaped with three different species of grasses, native and non-native plants ,and drought-resistant shrubs that suggest meticulous design over natural foliage. Park designer Kurt Buxton, managing principal at ValleyCrest Design Group, based in Orange County, explained that serious efforts were made to create the most naturalistic place possible. For example, only native or “native-compatible” foliage (meaning with similar water needs) were planted in Gan Eden. More challenging than Hillside’s aesthetic demands, Buxton said, the firm was most constrained by the need for resilient landscaping that could withstand the regular digging up and dumping necessitated by burials. 

“Grasses are something that you can basically dig up, set aside, and then put back,” Buxton explained, “and they will continue to grow and thrive and do what they do. As opposed to native shrubs, which, if you dug them up, nine times out of 10, it’s dead.” Ultimately, the firm decided, “Let’s do this as more of an artistic series rather than try to replicate nature.” 

The result is an overall effect of loveliness. Strolling through the space, with its striving little saplings — the Pacific madrones and Western redbuds reaching for the sun, the willowy deer grass swaying in the breeze — evokes the feeling of walking through a manicured park. Because no one is yet buried here, there is a careful arrangement of Hickory creek granite boulders peppering the space, which will eventually serve as engraved headstones. And although the prohibitions on embalming and cremation are strict, wood-only casket burial is permitted. In the absence of vaults, however, the ground will eventually sink, so Hillside has agreed with patrons of Gan Eden that it will maintain an aesthetic releveling of the grounds over time. And, because bodies are going straight into the earth, patrons are required to sign a special policy acknowledging that bodies can never be disinterred or moved. 

The “green” burial room. Photo by Erin Felsen

For their effort, Gan Eden was certified by the GBC as a hybrid burial ground, the first of three levels of green burial. The only other GBC-certified cemetery in California is in Joshua Tree. According to Sehee, the various levels of certification are designed around the GBC’s four environmental aims: reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, conservation of resources, and ideally, long-term land and habitat preservation.

“Our mission is to deindustrialize the industry,” Sehee said. A former Jesuit minister, Sehee believes it is incumbent upon religious leaders and communities to lead the change. He acknowledged it is an uphill battle, primarily because classic burial techniques such as the use of caskets, vaults and embalming chemicals contribute to inflated costs that earn huge revenues for the burial industry. Going green means ending some long-established routines that, in the long run, could potentially make green burial cheaper than traditional burial — in materials, though not the Westside real estate. 

“We’re talking about climate change here,” Sehee said emphatically. “This is an ethical issue, if you believe, as I do, that climate change has enormous consequences for us and that we need to do something about it right now.”   

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