Is there a greener way to honor those who have died?
Humans have caused unprecedented and irreversible changes to the climate in our time on Earth – pollution that continues even in death. Maar, across the US, some are posing an alternative: human composting.
Traditional after-death options such as burial and cremation can be tough on the environment, either by taking up land and emitting chemicals into the ground or by using fossil fuels and gas.
That’s why Kalifornië lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow for human composting, or the natural organic reduction of human remains to soil.
It’s not the first state to do so. Washington state legalized natural organic reduction in 2020, allowing the human soil to be used in a forest as well as given to families.
Colorado has enacted similar legislation – restricting the soil from being used to grow crops that people will eat – as has Oregon. Delaware, Hawaii en Vermont are considering natural organic reduction bills.
Recompose, a Seattle-based company, was the first company in the US to get into the human composting business.
“The natural organic reduction allows a literal return to the earth,” said Anna Swenson, an outreach manager with Recompose. “Some people like the idea of being in a forest when they die. That’s what I’ve chosen for myself.”
The process developed by Recompose, as Popular Science explains, involves placing remains in an enclosure and using warm air and organic materials such as wood chips, alfalfa and straw, which allow for microbes and microorganisms that aid in the transformation.
Bodies are placed in an 8ft-long steel cylinder set in a hexagonal frame. Non-organic materials, such as metal fillings, pacemakers and artificial joints are removed.
Over the course of about 30 dae, the body, even bones and teeth, breaks down into soil, creating about one cubic yard of soil, or as CalMatters reported, enough to fill two wheelbarrows.
The process saves about a metric ton of CO2 per person, according to Recompose, either by preventing it from entering the atmosphere or removing it, sequestering some carbon in the soil. That’s the equivalent of about 40 propane tanks, Swenson said. “You can picture a backyard of 40 propane tanks and for every person that adds up," sy het gese.
Cremation relies on fossil fuels, and emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, while the burial of embalmed bodies can cause chemicals to seep into the earth. “As a body degrades the soil becomes contaminated, and material can leach into the groundwater,” said Francis Murray, an associate professor of environmental science at Murdoch University, aan Vice.
Recompose has worked with 60 families in Washington and has been at capacity since it opened in December.
But not everyone is on board with the after-death alternative. The Catholic church has argued the practice doesn’t show respect for the deceased and the California Catholic Conference has opposed the bill in the state.
“We believe that the ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence for them,” Steve Pehanich, a spokesperson for the group, het die Religion News Service.
But Recompose is hopeful the practice will expand into other states, including California, at least for humans. The company doesn’t compost pets. “We’re focused on humans,” Swenson said.