Composting Human Remains–From Dust To Dust, From Cradle To Compost Heap

Recycling is a popular environmental-friendly activity. But the concept of recycling has progressed far beyond plastics and cans. After you kick the bucket, your body can now be recycled into soil. Your remains aren’t placed into the ground, they are turned into it via human composting.

Natural organic reduction (“NOR”) is a new alternative to traditional burial and cremation. The statement, “There oughta be a law,” applies here. You can’t do just whatever you want with a corpse, so laws are required to allow NOR to be a legal option. Right now, only one state, Washington, has a law permitting composting of human remains as an authorized method of body disposition. That law, effective May 1, 2020, may soon be joined by ones in Oregon (where a similar bill was recently introduced), Colorado (where pending legislation has passed one legislative chamber), and Delaware (where a measure allowing the disposition alternative was introduced this month).

Although the concept of NOR may not be widely known, farmers have practiced a form of the concept for decades. They utilize it to recycle livestock back to the earth. So, if you’re walking through a farmer’s field, cow patties may not be all you’re stepping on; Bessie’s remains in the form of soil could be underfoot.

The burial and cremation processes are generally understood, but what happens when NOR is selected for a deceased’s body? The method speeds up the natural decomposition process and turns a body into usable soil. The goal is to breakdown a corpse into stable organic material which is unrecognizable as human remains.

Lying in the open, a human body can take months to return to earth. That’s why a body found in the woods on your favorite TV crime show is still recognizable as a body even if it’s been there for awhile. Embalming fluids and caskets significantly delay decomposition, but NOR accelerates natural decomposition. And, of course, today’s society is all about speed–fast internet, fast food, etc. Why not get rid of our bodies fast when we’re gone?

The five steps of NOR are straightforward, but please don’t try process this at home or as a science project for your child. Step one is placing the (dead) body inside a container, usually made of wood or steel. Other organic materials and oxygen are added to the container in step two. For those scientifically challenged, organic material may include not only food scraps but bacteria and fungi as well. (For fungi, envision mushrooms.) These additions speed up the decomposition process. At Herland Forest, a non-profit research center in Washington State, bodies are placed in a NOR cradle with 200 gallons of wood chips to which bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and oxygen are added. I’m assuming this “recipe” calls for stirring at this point.

Step three involves heating things up. The container is kept at 130-160 degrees through rotation and the use of solar panels. Heat kills dangerous or harmful bacteria, ensuring the soil produced at the end of the process is non-toxic.

In step four the body decomposes into soil. This decomposition occurs while the body is kept in a greenhouse-like facility. Human compost results in around one month’s time with each body creating one cubic yard of soil, the equivalent of four wheelbarrows full.

The final step in the NOR process is to return the soil to the deceased’s family who may spread it and use it to grow a garden or a tree. Flowers and trees are nice, but what about growing food with NOR produced soil? Would your deceased grandmother be proud of her soil producing some prized tomatoes? This result isn’t an option in Colorado; the pending legislation to authorize NOR there would not allow the soil’s utilization for human food production.

Other than providing soil for growing, what are the benefits of NOR? The process is environmentally friendly since no harmful chemicals or energy costs are involved. In contrast, cremation, which is favored in most of the world, burns fossil fuels and emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere. Every cremation uses 28 gallons of gas. Talk about a gas guzzler…According to Recompose, a NOR business in Washington State, for every person who chooses NOR over cremation or conventional burial, one metric ton of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere.

Harmful chemicals are part and parcel of the embalming process undertaken for traditional burials. More than 800,000 gallons of toxic fluid annually are utilized for embalming. Who wants harsh chemicals injected into their (dead) body when you could rest in peace with mushrooms and eggshells with NOR?

Human composting is also far less resource intensive. Conventional burial takes up valuable land and pollutes the soil. Traditional burials contribute to climate change through resource intensive manufacture and transport of headstones, grave liners, and caskets too. Hmm. Maybe if humans just didn’t die, all these negatives stemming from the need to dispose of corpses would disappear. But then where would that leave the $20 billion U.S. funeral service industry?

Affordability is an attractive feature of NOR. A traditional burial costs about $9,000 while cremation ranges between $4,000 to $7,000. Good thing you can’t take it with you because a big chunk needs to be left behind to cover last expenses such as burial. Human composting is less expensive with a price tag between $3,000 and $5,000.

On the downside, NOR has not been warmly received in some religious circles. Admittedly, no graveside services are possible since there are no graves, just containers. The Catholic Church has denounced human composting as “undignified” and does not view it as an acceptable method for disposition of remains.

What to do with human remains is not a pleasant topic. But sometimes hard decisions must be made. Making a considered, thoughtful advance determination will save grieving loved ones from having to agonize over the right choice as to what to do with your body. None of the options are appealing–incineration into ashes, pumped full of toxic fluids and buried to rot slowly, or mixed with fungi and food scraps and heated to rapidly turn into soil. Just like how you will live your life, how your body will be disposed of is up to you. And the choice may simply be what is the lesser of three evils.

Just WONDER-ing:

How much thought, if any, have you given to what will happen to your body after your death? Had you heard about NOR before? Were you aware of the negative environmental consequences from traditional burial and cremation? Would you consider NOR for a disposition method?

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