You already know that eggshells and banana peels can be composted to reduce our negative environmental impact. Did you know that you can also compost your body after you’re gone?
Human composting, also known as natural organic removal or the reduction of human remains, is the act of putting a deceased body in a reusable container with biodegradable material that encourages the transformation into nutrient-rich soil that can then be returned to loved ones and donated to conservation.
Although it might seem impossible to imagine going green even after death, California is the latest state that has signed a human composting bill. It will go into effect in 2027. In 2019, Washington was the first state to allow human composting. Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont followed suit.
Human composting is being promoted as a way to slow climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gas emissions like methane and carbon dioxide. According to Chemical & Engineering News (a publication of the American Chemical Society), cremations use a lot of fuel. One corpse containing carbon dioxide can be buried in the atmosphere. This is equivalent to driving 470 miles in a car. According to Green Burial Council Inc. (an organization that oversees the certification standards for funeral homes, cemeteries, and other providers of sustainable burial practices), cremations are responsible for 1.74 billion pounds annually in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
“Human composting… consumes much less energy than cremation which uses fossil gas to generate heat at over 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit,” Katrina Spade (founder and CEO of Recompose), a licensed green funeral home located in Seattle. “Human composting transforms organic material in our bodies. Carbon is also sequestered within the soil that is created.” Instead of being released as carbon dioxide gas during cremation, the carbon content in each body goes back to the earth.
Cristina Garcia, a California Assembly member, introduced the state legislation. She said that extreme drought and wildfires are reminders of climate change and that methane emissions must be cut. Garcia stated in a September news release that natural organic reduction is better than conventional burials or cremations for each person who chooses it.
Spade’s company Recompose was the first US facility to compost human waste when it opened in December 2020. Spade discovered livestock mortality composting and began to think about human composting as a graduate student.
This industry is still new and little research has been done on the benefits of human composting for the environment over traditional burials, cremation, or green burials. The process isn’t completely carbon-free because it involves electricity-operated machinery and the transportation of remains, bodies, and materials, according to Ed Bixby of the Green Burial Council.
Bixby stated that transparency is key to attracting more people who are interested in sustainable end-of-life options. According to a recent survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, 60.5% of respondents indicated an interest in “green” funeral options due to potential cost savings and environmental benefits.
Bixby stated that she doesn’t want her family to be upset or disturbed believing something it isn’t. We believe that if you are going to do something it is environmentally responsible, that’s great. We want people to understand what they are buying.
Reduce death’s financial and environmental impact
Spade explained that Recompose uses an 8-foot steel cylinder for human composting. The vessel is filled with a body and placed on straw, wood chips, and alfalfa.
Spade stated that human composting creates an environment where beneficial microbes thrive. It has particular moisture content and a ratio of carbon and nitrogen.
Everything inside will naturally decay over the next 30 days. One person creates one
a cubic yard of soil amendment. This is a substance that is added to soil to improve its health or texture. The soil amendment is then removed from the vessel and left to cure for between two and six weeks. It can then be donated to conservation projects or returned to loved ones. Bixby explained that the state can decide how much a loved one can receive. The soil is still considered legal human remains and there are regulations about what people can do with it.
Bixby stated that the practice prevents nonbiodegradable material from being introduced to the environment or land. The funeral home workers would be protected from high levels of formaldehyde. This has been shown to cause myeloid and rare cancers.
The financial impact of end-of-life arrangements could be reduced by human composting. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median funeral cost in the US with cremation was $6,971, and $7,848 for a funeral with viewing and burial. Spade stated that the median burial cost does not include the costs of a plot, headstone, or other cemetery costs associated with a traditional burial. This can often increase the cost by as much as two-thirds.
Spade stated that Recompose aims to keep human composting as affordable as other options for death care.
Who is a candidate to compost?
Spade stated that Recompose has already turned more than 200 corpses into the soil in its first second anniversary and has over 1,100 people signed up to Precompose.
Spade stated that clients tell Spade that it is comforting to know that their bodies, or the bodies of loved ones, will be able to return to the earth.
Human composting is not for everyone. Spade stated that while natural organic reduction is effective in eliminating most pathogens, three diseases may disqualify a body from human composting. These are Ebola and tuberculosis, as well as diseases caused by prions. Prions are abnormally transmissible pathogenic agents that can cause brain proteins to fold abnormally.
Soon, the list of states that allow human composting could grow. Spade stated that a bill from New York has passed both the legislative and executive houses. It is now on its way to Governor’s Desk. In Massachusetts, Jack Lewis and Natalie Higgins lead a bill that legalizes human composting.
Bixby stated that not all funeral homes will quickly adopt this practice. He said that direct cremation can be performed the same day as a permit has been issued. While a burial takes about three to five days, human composting can take as long as 120.
Bixby stated that the problem with this growth is that it can’t be done in high volumes. “As long-lasting as this process is, five or six vessels (vessels), don’t do much good. This is why I don’t think this will gain much ground as a businessman.
He said, “It doesn’t make much practical sense. It’s not about money, which I don’t like to do. But when you provide a service it must be about the income. You have to pay the bills.