By Marissa Garcia, CalMatters
Two wheelbarrows full – that’s how much earth a composted human body produces. Turning people to earth after death could soon be legal in California.
Currently, there are only three options for death after death in California: burial and cremation – by fire or water. But a bill going through the legislature would legalize “natural organic reduction” or composting of human remains and add a greener burial option to the mix.
“The idea of returning to earth is somewhat metaphorical while natural organic production offers a literal return to earth,” said Anna Swenson, spokeswoman for Recompose, the company that developed the process.
While California is considering sanctioning human composting, other states have already begun. In 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize the process. And that year the dominoes kept falling: Colorado legalized it in May, and Oregon followed suit in June. New York could do the same next year.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a conversation has developed about the need for alternatives to cremation. Amid the peak of COVID-19 deaths in January, Los Angeles County burned so many bodies that local air quality authorities temporarily lifted cremation limits to minimize air pollution.
Natural organic reduction comes at a time when the demand for green terminal care options is growing. In 2017, legislators legalized alkaline hydrolysis, or cremation by water. Only one eighth of the energy of a conventional cremation is used, which devours fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide. But despite legalization, the practice has not become widespread and few funeral homes offer the service in California.
Burial isn’t that green either – it leaches chemicals into the soil and takes up scarce land.
If every Californian chose to compost after their death, proponents of innovation argue, the carbon saved would be enough to supply 225,000 households for a year – or more than half of those in San Francisco.
The bill has so far been brought with considerable bipartisan support from the legislature. Left-wing politicians support this environmentally friendly technology. And both the left and the right appreciate the expansion of consumer choice.
Religious concerns with composting technology
The only formal opposition so far has come from the Catholic Church.
The California Catholic Conference did not respond to CalMatters’ interview requests, but told the Religion News Service last year that it opposed an earlier version of the bill.
“We believe that ‘transforming’ the remains would create more emotional distance than reverence for them,” said spokesman Steve Pehanich at the time.
But the MP driving the bill, Cristina Garcia, was raised Catholic and represents a heavily Catholic district in southeast Los Angeles County. She said she understood that turning to earth after death is not for everyone.
“I actually had a lively discussion with my parents about this bill this weekend,” the Bell Gardens Democrat said at a Senate committee hearing in June. “My mother loved the idea and my father just couldn’t handle it.”
Garcia said she will always stand up for the right of her voters to practice their religions freely and safely.
“But it is my duty not to impose my religion on other people. It is my duty to give individuals the choice to do what is best for them, ”she said.
Swenson says Recompose did the science on the ground, and science was key to helping lawmakers.
“We did (natural organic reduction) six times in the study, and now we’ve done it over 50 times since we opened, so we have good evidence that this works,” said Swenson.
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, who works as a consultant scientist for Recompose, has been studying soils for 30 years.
In a testimony to the Senate Health Committee in July, the scientist said that “the finished material is Earth-like and visually, chemically, or microbiologically undetectable as human remains. and (the soil) can safely and selectively feed the land and the plants and forests. “
Composting human remains would be a new process that the state would have to regulate. The legislator’s first concern is: How should human land be handled legally.
“Is it the same as cremated ashes, or are we looking at different criteria and guidelines?” Said Democratic Senator Richard Pan of Sacramento at the hearing.
It is likely that ashes and earth will be treated similarly under the law, Garcia said. Under their Congregation Bill 501, soil derived from human remains may only be left in places without local prohibitions, and the landowner would also be required to provide written authorization.
While California hasn’t finalized the regulations, it’s possible that it also follows some of Colorado’s rules: It made it illegal to use human-derived soil to grow the food that humans eat. In other words, you could use it to grow a flower garden, but not your vegetables.
Garcia’s bill gives the state cemetery and funeral home an additional year to develop guidelines for the soil before services can begin in July 2023.
Not everything decomposes
Another concern: Are all parts of the human body really turning into earth?
“There are parts of our bodies that don’t naturally decompose – teeth, fillings … bones – how does it all work mechanically?” Asked Orange County’s Democratic Senator Josh Newman at the Senate hearing.
Bodies are placed in “vessels” to initiate the composting process. And the vessels do not look anything like caskets – the wall of all 10 vessels resembles a broken honeycomb, inspired by nature. High heat during the composting process helps the microbes break down all organic materials – including bones and teeth. The hardened floor is then searched for non-organic materials – such as titanium hips, pacemakers or dental work. All retrieved items are typically recycled.
“There are companies that have crematoriums today that recycle metals from corpses after cremation, so it’s very similar,” Recompose founder and CEO Katrina Spade said at the hearing.
The privately owned company based near Seattle began human composting in January 2021. To date, Recompose has returned more than 50 bodies to Earth. And it’s growing fast, hoping to open a bigger location in Seattle in the spring of 2022. And if the bill is passed, Recompose hopes to open in Southern California by July 2023.
In Washington, a loved one’s earth can be sent to a conservation forest, returned to the family, or a combination of both options. Swenson, the spokesman for Recompose, said, “We hope we can do something like this in California.”