My wife and I are thinking about how our children should dispose of our bodies once we have passed. Having no love for the traditional methods, we went in search of alternatives. We discovered a body farm. In this method the bodies are staked out (often) in the open on a protected plot of land so that they might be studied concerning natural decay, then the information gathered is used for forensic studies and training concerning murder investigations and other such things. We like the idea of this for two reasons: First, it helps to assist the living, and second, it returns the bodies to the earth in the quickest way possible. We will not go any further in this plan without guidance. Can you help?
[Administrators Note: There is a related question on the importance of burial in a Jewish cemetery in the JVO database at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=223. The concept of a body farm was foreign to me and I had to research it. There are multiple in the US at this time. They are used for training purposes, as the question states. However, the bodies are not always placed on the ground: some are buried, partially buried, covered with materials, placed in shade or sunlight or under water, and so on. The bodies are then examined at various intervals ranging from daily to weekly to monthly, depending on what is being studied, and photographs and samples are taken. This is not, strictly speaking, a completely natural decay process, as it may include exhumation and sampling multiple times.It is certainly not a traditional burial, and the body does not remain undisturbed.]
Contemplating one’s death is a painful endeavor. It is difficult to find meaning in what appears to be the most obvious demonstration of meaninglessness – the transformation of our lives into non-existence and our bodies into dust. Different religious traditions have determined what appears to them the best way to go about this. The Jewish tradition has advocated burial in a Jewish cemetery as its “gold standard” for proper treatment of a body. This is not about having the body underground per se. In fact, in ancient Israel they placed the dead in burial chambers until the body decomposed and then gathered the bones and placed them in a family tomb. Rather there are two main concerns about treatment of the deceased.
1. Leaving the body out – The Torah says (Deut. 21:23) that leaving a body unburied – disrespecting it in that way – is a curse on God, since humans were made in God’s image. In fact, leaving a body unburied is considered such a sacrilege that the high priest, who is usually forbidden to touch a dead body, is permitted – even required – to himself bury a corpse he finds abandoned.
2. Disturbing the body – Halakha takes the idea of respecting the dead very seriously. It is forbidden to disturb the dead and there are very strict rules about disinterment (Shulḥan Arukh YD 363) as well as protocol for how to behave in front of a body or in a cemetery (Shulḥan Arukh YD 367-368). Even speaking about matters of the living, learning Torah or openly performing mitzvot are considered “teasing the dead” (lo’eg la-rash).
Considering the above, as an Orthodox rabbi I cannot really suggest anything other than burial. However, as you began your question by stating that this is – for whatever reason – not an option you are willing to consider, I will try to think creatively with you.
I understand your desire to be helpful to the world after your deaths; I really do. This is an admirable sentiment and people like you do the world credit. Of course, there are varying degrees of helpfulness when it comes to donating one’s body to science. Certainly, there is precedent for it – whether it be organ donation or allowing autopsies when the doctors need to understand how a person died. On the other hand, I am far less comfortable with unspecified donation to science, where the benefit is significantly less tangible, like in the famous “Bodies” exhibition or the man and woman who donated their bodies to be thinly sliced so that 3D images could be created for computer study (the Visible Human Project). Your case of body farms seems somewhere in between these extremes – it has no immediate benefit or point like organ donation and autopsy but seems less disrespectful to the dead than the Bodies exhibition or the Visible Human Project.
Therefore, I would like to suggest a compromise. If you have your hearts set on this approach, would it be possible for you to have your bones buried in a Jewish cemetery after your bodies have decomposed? (I know it feels awful to speak this way, and I apologize, but it is the nature of the question.) Burial in a Jewish cemetery has been a cornerstone of Jewish practice and identity for millennia, and it feels as if ignoring this is almost tantamount to turning your backs on your Jewish identities at the very end of your lives. To me, it feels sad and unnecessary. The gathering of bones into a family sepulcher is a time-honored and ancient tradition, and would still allow you to participate in the body farm project. Assuming a Jewish cemetery would allow it, this would be my suggested compromise.
Finally, I want to end with one thought, which I am sure you considered but it would feel wrong not to mention it. Although the halakha concentrates on treatment of the dead, it is vitally important not to forget the living. I am not referring to the scientists here, but to your children. I have no idea what their feelings are about the body farm, and I am sure you have discussed it with them. I just wanted to emphasize that your real legacy in life – or at least one of them – is your children.
Moreover, it is not the dead that suffer, but the living that loved them and miss them. I cannot emphasize enough that it is important that your funeral arrangements not be traumatic to them and not alienate them. I can’t imagine that any concerns about being useful could trump any deep hurt or anguish a controversial decision about the disposal of one’s body may cause to one’s loved ones. Again, I am not saying that you have not ascertained your children’s feelings; I only wanted to make this point explicit just in case.
I hope this was helpful and that you have a long time ahead before this decision becomes practical,
In all honesty, forensics is not my area of expertise. However, I am familiar with some other issues pertaining to the treatment of the corpse according to the Halacha. With that thought in mind, I will try to present a well-thought-out answer to your question.
There is an important aspect about the body farm concept that you may not properly understand. You wrote, “Secondly, it returns the bodies to the earth in the quickest way possible.” Actually, that is not really the case. The body is exhumed and sampled many times over a period of weeks and months. Your body will not remain undisturbed. If that is a concern to you, then you may wish to consider other alternatives.
What does Jewish Law have to say about this process?
In Jewish law, it is traditional to compare one type of case study with possible antecedents that share similar properties. Two other areas of Halachic inquiry immediately come to mind that could shed some light on this topic: autopsies and donating one’s body for science.
Ordinarily autopsies are forbidden because they disfigure the body. In addition, any part of the body that is not properly buried after the organ has been removed is a violation of Jewish tradition.
However there are some important exceptions to this rule. Autopsies are not only permitted, but sometimes required—especially if it helps doctors and the police discover relevant information about the cause of death. With respect to a mysterious contagion, autopsies can help the physician determine the causes of a disease, so as to prevent the deaths of others. An autopsy is especially helpful in diagnosing a hereditary disease, which could save the lives of surviving kin as well as their children, by determining an appropriate medical intervention strategy for dealing with the disease. 
Are body farms in some ways analogous, in that both forensic discipline aims to ascertain certain information about the possible causes of death? On the surface, they do serve a common goal and purpose.
Body farms do not (as I understand) prevent the loss of human life. Nevertheless, they help assist in murder investigations. Forensic studies can sometimes prove the innocence of an accused murderer (much like DNA testing has proven the innocence of people accused of murder). On the basis of this comparison, the body farm is permitted—provided the body is eventually interned after the studies have been completed in a Jewish cemetery. This same principle applies no less to autopsies, which require that all the organs be properly buried with the body.
Donating One’s Body to Science
Your original question may be parsed in a different way: Is donating one’s corpse to a body farm any worse than donating a body to a medical school, for the purposes of anatomical study? This issue has also been discussed in much of the relevant Halachic literature.
Donating one’s body to science for anatomical studies is permitted according to a number of Halachic authorities. For example: The Chief Sephardic Ashkenazi Ben Tsion Uziel of Israel ruled one might make one’s body available to first-year medical students to study anatomy provided that (a) the body parts are subsequently buried according to Jewish law (b) and provided that one does not sell one’s body for money. However, among contemporary Halachic authorities, R. Ovadia Yosef ruled that, “He who donates his body to science, to have his organs dissected, even though his intention is to advance scientific research, he is committing a serious offense, and might be relinquishing the chance of resurrection of his soul and body. Therefore, we must not mourn his death.” 
Although there is considerable debate within Jewish thought as to what exactly constitutes “resurrection,” (some Orthodox rabbis believe in a physical resurrection; others believe in a spiritual resurrection that occurs after death). Clearly R. Ovadia Yosef, like other rabbis before him, believes in physical resurrection. Of the two approaches, I personally follow the view of Rav Uziel, as well as Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who permits donating one’s body for the scientific study of anatomy.
The concern for human life is the basis for many cadaver donor transplants. The prohibition from deriving benefit from the dead does not apply to donating organs that can improve the quality of human life. A transplanted organ is considered to still be “alive” when it is functioning in a living person. By the same token, transplanting an organ is not considered to be a desecration of the dead. There is no greater mitzvah than bringing life to the living, whether it is the gift of an eye, skin, or other tissues that enhance the process of healing. In the final analysis, every organ—sooner or later—will be interned with the demise of the beneficiary. Consent from the living is, however, a requirement.
As mentioned above, the body still needs to be properly interned after the examinations have been completed. By the same token, one is not allowed to sell one’s body to the medical college. From this perspective, the same principle ought to apply to the body-farm concept as well.
Rabbinical decisions often consider contrarian perspectives. While this may seem rather confusing to someone who is unfamiliar with this type of reasoning process, it serves to give the individual ample space to make a personal decision. As a rabbi, it is my duty to present both sides of an argument. Ultimately, each person must decide for him/herself. Bearing this thought in mind, let us examine this issue from a different point of view.
Anatomists often debate this issue among themselves. One school of thought argues that dissection is necessary to learn medical gross anatomy. The contrarian perspective argues that dissection is no longer considered necessary. Within this next decade, the development of holographic technology may make the traditional use of the cadaver a thing of the past.
Due the availability of cadavers, time limitations of the classes, and economic factors, it is important to note that not all medical schools offer courses in dissection. Computer-assisted programs such as Computer-assisted learning (CAL) packages are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, which offer an alternative to dissection. With the explosion of medical technology and informational sciences that now exists, some medical schools superimpose 3D images of the human body upon the flesh of the student to demonstrate the relationship, size, and position of the various body parts. In addition, anatomy databases provide a much faster panoramic view and information about the human body than any cadaver can possibly provide. One can trace the images of a healthy person at age 20, and with the imaging software, one can literally follow the aging process from birth to death.
However, it is generally agreed that the CAL can never fully replace the intellectual, educational and emotional experience afforded to medical students by cadaver dissection provides.
In light of this, the forensic sciences also use the same kind of imaging software detailing how a body can decompose in a variety of different ways. The 3D imaging provides pictures of what a body might look like underwater, or if the body was burnt beyond recognition, diseased, and so on. Similar technological advances are also being used with animals, where vivisection is rapidly becoming passé. Ergo, donating one’s body to science may not necessarily be a matter of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), as some scholars once thought–largely because of the new medical technology.
In light of the above, I would say that the CAL medical technology may already make the body farm concept unnecessary based upon the medical databases dealing with decomposition that are available on international databases. This knowledge may give you another reason to reconsider decision.
A Jewish cemetery provides an important place for your children and friends to come and visit you. The soil of the grave is considered sacred ground in nearly all civilizations around the world—and for good reason—it is a place where you can honor your loved ones; it is ultimately the place where others will someday hopefully honor and remember you. Some of the ancients believe that the greatest immortality one can receive is when others remember you for the person you were.
Outside of the most “traditionalist” of Jewish circles, it has generally been permitted and even encouraged for Jews to permit part of their body or the whole to be used for things like organ donation and even medical research. Modern Jewish custom even allows for a delay in burial for an autopsy in the case of a crime, or even when it would simply provide useful information that could help others (See this Reposnsa from the CCAR). While re-interment (which is what partially burying and then re-burying after study would be) is a more tricky subject, again the idea that it could bring benefit to people, in this case victims of crimes, would make it an appropriate action.
Based on the idea that your bodies would be used for research that would potentially result in a murderer being captured more quickly (and thus saving the lives of future victims) this type of use of your body would be an act of pikuach nefesh (preserving of life) as much as one who donates their body for medical research. Therefore, if you feel this is right and that it will bring comfort to those who will mourn for you, it would be acceptable. That said, it would be best, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, to arrange for a traditional gravesite for any parts that remain after research has been completed, as those parts should not be disposed of in a haphazard manner, but very deliberately.
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