Human composting may not be a very appetizing prospect, or topic of conversation for that matter, but the idea is gaining supporters as the booming world population inevitably produces a booming dead body problem. Cemeteries are already full in many metropolitan centers, and “natural” burials almost always mean being buried far away from your home, because the space close by just doesn’t exist. For example, New York City banned burials in Manhattan, south of 86th Street, in 1851 because of lack of space. Cremations have flourished as a result.
In the 1960’s, over 90% of Americans were buried, against less than 10% who were cremated. By 2021, approximately 40% were buried against 60% who were cremated. However, there appears now to be a movement looking at another, more environmentally friendly, way of choosing how you want your body handled after death.
In 2013, an architectural student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Katrina Spade, began to ponder this dilemma. She wrote her masters’ thesis on the topic. In that thesis, she explored the idea that, if whole cows could be turned into compost, why couldn’t humans choose the same way to end their lives. It may sound a little repulsive to most of us, but it does make sense in an environmentally challenged planet. In a way, that’s what happens when we are buried. The main difference is that the “compost” is concentrated in cemeteries, and isn’t available for any useful purpose. An emotionally difficult statement to accept, perhaps, but true none-the-less.
Katrina decided to pursue the ideas she presented in her thesis, which is unusual enough in of itself – most of us keep our theses on a bookshelf, or in a box somewhere. She now runs a company called Recompose, which is a “human composting” facility in Seattle.
If you are faint-hearted, you can skip the following paragraph.
Recompose places a body in a vessel alongside woodchips, straw, and alfalfa, which together create a warm atmosphere of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture. It is then left for up to twelve weeks, during which time microbes help break it down. It may all sound a little grisly, but the process ends with a small mound of soil, which is given back to the families, and can be used to plant trees or nurture plants. This month, New York will become the sixth state in the U.S. to allow this process.
The environmental benefits are clear. Every year, burials in cemeteries across the country require vast quantities of steel and concrete to reinforce graves. They also require millions of liters of embalming fluid, which seep harmful chemicals into the ground. Cremations are not much better: cremating one corpse emits the carbon dioxide equivalent of driving about 750 kilometers in a car. Human composting is obviously a far better process, from an environmental point of view.
Certainly, there are detractors. First among them are religious groups who view the process with horror. Edward Mechmann, the Director of Public Policy for the Archdiocese of New York, argues that the Catholic Church’s belief in the “unity of body and soul” renders the process disrespectful and a “violation of dignity”. Other religions and cultures that have strict burial customs will also have objections. However, the process seems to me not only practical, but remarkably similar to a conventional burial in a cemetery. And it is far better for the future of the planet.
Currently, Recompose has a waiting list of several thousand people who wish their bodies to be handled in this way when they die. Legislation permitting the process is under consideration in five states, including Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut. An interesting idea for today and, more importantly, for the future?