Is there a more environmentally friendly way to honor the deceased?
In our time on earth, humans have caused unprecedented and irreversible changes in the climate – pollution that lasts until death. But in the US some are proposing an alternative: human composting.
Traditional afterlife options like burial and cremation can pollute the environment either by occupying land and emitting chemicals into the soil or by using fossil fuels and gas.
Because of this, California lawmakers are considering laws that would allow human composting or the natural organic reduction of human remains into the soil.
It’s not the first state to do this. In 2020, the US state of Washington legalized natural organic reduction, which allows the human soil in a forest to be used and passed on to families.
Colorado has similar laws in place – preventing the soil from growing crops that people will eat – like Oregon. Delaware, Hawaii, and Vermont are considering natural bio-reduction laws.
Recompose, a Seattle-based company, was the first in the United States to enter the human composting business.
“The natural organic reduction enables a literal return to earth,” said Anna Swenson, Outreach Manager at Recompose. “Some people like the idea of being in a forest when they die. That’s what I chose. “
The process developed by Recompose, as Popular Science explains, involves placing leftovers in an enclosure and using warm air and organic materials like wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, which enable microbes and microorganisms to aid in the conversion.
The bodies are housed in an 8 foot long steel cylinder in a hexagonal frame. Inorganic materials such as metal fillings, pacemakers and artificial joints are removed.
Over the course of about 30 days, the body, even bones and teeth, crumbles into earth, creating about a cubic meter of earth, or, as CalMatters reported, enough to fill two wheelbarrows.
The process saves around a tonne of CO2 per person, according to Recompose, by either preventing it from entering the atmosphere or by removing it, which locks up some carbon in the soil. That’s the equivalent of about 40 propane tanks, Swenson said. “You can think of a back yard with 40 propane tanks and for each person that adds up,” she said.
Cremation is based on fossil fuels and emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, while burial of embalmed corpses can cause chemicals to seep into the earth. “When a body decomposes, the soil becomes contaminated and material can seep into the groundwater,” Francis Murray, associate professor of environmental science at Murdoch University, told Vice.
Recompose has worked with 60 families in Washington and has been at capacity since opening in December.
But not everyone is on board with the after-death alternative. The Catholic Church has argued that the practice shows no respect for the deceased, and the California Catholic Conference has spoken out against the law in the state.
“We believe that ‘transforming’ the remains would create emotional distance rather than awe for them,” said Steve Pehanich, a spokesman for the group, the Religion News Service.
But Recompose hopes the practice will expand to other states, including California, at least for humans. The company does not compost pets. “We focus on people,” said Swenson.