What is a “green burial?” The Green Burial Council says: “A green or natural burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Green burial necessitates the use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds, and urns.”

Do you know where the first “green” cemetery in Maine is located? Many people would be surprised to learn that the Smith Street Jewish Cemetery in South Portland, established in 1875, was most probably Maine’s first “green” cemetery. The rules of the cemetery association required strict adherence to traditional Jewish laws concerning burial. Those laws prohibited embalming of bodies and prescribed that the casket must be a simple wooden box, commonly made out of pine, without any metal whatsoever. Concrete grave liners, required in most cemeteries today, were also not used. In this way, the casket and the body are both entirely biodegradable. These laws help to more quickly fulfill the principle stated in the Book of Genesis, “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Because of its small size, the Smith Street Cemetery quickly began to run out of space. Land was purchased in 1901 off Warren Avenue in Portland and the new Mt. Sinai Cemetery was created there to accommodate the growing number of Jewish families who had come to Maine to live. It was also a “green cemetery.” Two other Jewish cemeteries were subsequently started, but the Mt. Sinai and Smith Street cemeteries are the two oldest. Smith Street Cemetery is “sold out” and no longer accepts people for burial. Mt. Sinai Cemetery, with more than 4,000 people buried there, is still very much open for business and continues to adhere to its original criteria, still operating as a “green cemetery.”

Showing proper respect for the dead is intrinsic to Jewish law. The connection between the soul and the human body after death is an essential aspect of Jewish belief in the eternity of the soul. According to Jewish tradition, Jewish burial grounds are sacred sites and must remain undisturbed in perpetuity. Establishing a cemetery is one of the first priorities for a new Jewish community.

Maintaining Jewish cemeteries almost 150 years after they were created has proven to be a significant challenge for most Jewish communities throughout the United States. That would include the Jewish community cemeteries in southern Maine. These cemeteries were financially viable for several reasons when they were first created. They were originally funded by members throughout the community. These people were a closely-knit group, many of whom had recently arrived in Maine from Eastern Europe. Like many immigrant groups, these new immigrants tended to keep mostly to themselves and continued to follow ancient rules and traditions. They set aside a portion of the proceeds from the sale of cemetery plots to be used for perpetual care. The total amount to purchase a plot when the Maine cemeteries were created was $35 per cemetery plot. That figure also included perpetual care. It is easy to understand how the funds originally set aside for upkeep and maintenance of these cemeteries were quickly depleted.

A brand new organization, the Southern Maine Jewish Cemetery Association, was recently created to address issues such as restoration, maintenance and operation of these two cemeteries. This group is eager to spread the word about what they are doing. If you would like to learn more about SMJCA and their mission or are just curious about these two local cemeteries, you can learn more about them and get more information at www.facebook.com/SMJCA2/.

Rabbi Gary Berenson is the rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim and also serves as executive director of The Maine Jewish Museum. He can be reached at:

[email protected]