Do you torment yourself with cold showers because they are more energy efficient? Do you make an effort every week to meticulously sort and separate your recycling? Do you walk for miles in bad weather because you are proud to have a small carbon footprint? If so, you are the type of person who spends your life helping the environment. However, when your time comes, you may have no choice but to spend your death hurting it. Unless you live in a state that allows “natural organic reduction” – also known as human composting.
Seattle-based startup Recompose claims to be the world’s first composting funeral home. His service is simple: instead of burying or cremating someone who is dying, he lays his body on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw in a steel cylinder and then covers it with more plant material. The body remains in the cylinder called the jar for 30 days. During this time, naturally occurring microbes break it down into nutrient-rich soil. Once removed from the jar, the soil is placed in a hardening container for several weeks for ventilation, after which inorganic objects such as metal fillings, pacemakers and artificial joints are removed and, if possible, recycled. Eventually the soil can be returned to the land.
It’s super sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s super illegal in most states too. Exceptions are the state of Washington, which was the first state to legalize natural organic reduction in May 2019; Colorado, which followed suit in May 2021; and Oregon, which became the third state to sanction human composting as of June 2021.
Now California, Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont are also considering legalizing natural organic reduction. According to The Guardian, the process saves a ton of carbon dioxide per person, either by removing it from the atmosphere by binding it to the ground or by preventing it from entering the atmosphere in the first place. That’s about 40 propane tanks.
The process is also energy efficient: According to Recompose, human composting uses only one eighth the energy of a conventional burial or cremation.
“Given climate change and sea level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposal that does not contribute to emissions into our atmosphere,” California MP Cristina Garcia, sponsor of a law to legalize human composition Golden State, according to a February 2020 press release.
But are funeral and cremation really that bad? Recompose says it is them. “Cremation burns fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide and particulate matter into the atmosphere,” she explains on her website. “Conventional burial uses valuable urban land, pollutes the soil and contributes to climate change through the resource-intensive manufacture and transport of coffins, gravestones and grave goods.”
The overall environmental impact of conventional burial and cremation is roughly the same, suggests the company.
According to VICE, teeth are an open, albeit macabre, example of the environmental impact of a funeral. When people are cremated, it was reported in 2015 that fillings smolder in their teeth, releasing toxic mercury into the air. That doesn’t happen at the funeral, but something equally poisonous: embalming. While most embalming fluids are biodegradable, their most common ingredient – formaldehyde – has been linked to rare cancers.
“The average body needs a gallon (3.7 liters) of embalming fluid for every 50 pounds (22.6 kg) to be properly preserved, which is not enough to pose too much of a threat, but with over 3 million liters of formaldehyde-based embalming Liquid spills in the US alone add up each year, ”reports VICE, which says nude or funeral burials are also problematic as decaying corpses can contaminate groundwater.
Because of the energy demand, high-tech alternatives such as cryogenic freezing are also out. So from an environmental standpoint, human composting really might be the best solution, according to Recompose, which encourages friends and family to use composted leftovers to plant a tree or memorial garden in honor of loved ones.
“Trees are important carbon breaks for the environment,” said Garcia. “They’re the best filters for air quality, and if more people get involved in environmental reduction and tree planting, we can improve California’s carbon footprint.”
But not everyone is a fan of human composting. One of the critics of the process is the Catholic Church, which already disapproves of the cremation. According to the Religious New Service, the Vatican issued guidelines in 2016 warning Catholics not to disperse cremated remains at sea and on land and instead keep them in a church or cemetery.
The Church has ordered that ashes “remain in a communal place commensurate with the dignity of the human body and its connection to the immortal soul,” Steve Pehanich, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told RNS last spring.
Regarding human composting, Pehanich suggested that what is good for the environment may not be good for the soul. “We believe that ‘transforming’ the remains would create emotional distance rather than reverence for them,” he said.