Human composting is now legal in two states. But is it actually a more sustainable, environmentally friendly practice than cremation?
For decades, there have been two options for dealing with dead bodies: cremation or burial. But in 2019, the state of Washington passed a law that would allow for a third: Turning dead bodies into compost. Colorado followed suit in 2021, and bills to legalize natural organic reduction are proposed in Oregon, California, and New York.
Imagine distributing soil from a loved one’s body and then planting a tree or a bed of flowers on the soil, so you can always have a place to remember them. Or perhaps you want to donate the soil to an organization that’s helping to rehabilitate a local nature preserve.
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Human composting has been touted as the most sustainable option for dealing with dead bodies because it reduces emissions and allows humans to give their energy back to the Earth after death. But for many communities, the practice is still controversial.
The first company to tackle this kind of end-of-life service is called Recompose. Founded by Katrina Spade, Recompose advertises “ecological death care.” The company is located outside of Seattle and its efforts are still small; currently, the facility has room for 10 bodies.
The science behind Recompose is similar to any other decomposition process: The bodies are put into vessels (steel tubes) with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa. These materials provide the heat, water, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen needed for a body to break down. Then, over the course of 30 days, naturally occurring microbes break the body down as human attendants help to rotate it every few days. What remains in the tube, according to the company, is about 1.5 cubic yards of soil, which the Recompose staff lets dry for a few weeks at 131ºF — to kill off contagious disease — before it’s distributed to families or donated to a restoration program.
Recompose isn’t the only company focused on human composting: Inventor Bob Hendrikx recently launched The Loop Living Cocoon, a biodegradable coffin made of fungus. Once the coffin is in the ground, it degrades within 45 days, leaving behind microorganisms that help decompose the body over the course of a few years. Return Home and Herland Forest both offer similar composting methods to Recompose in the state of Washington. Oregon and California are likely to follow Colorado and Washington into this addition to the end-of-life industry, and Recompose says it’s already looking at locations in Denver now that the process has been legalized there.
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But whether the practice is truly ecological and sustainable is another question. The main appeal of this method, of course, is emissions. When bodies are cremated, they give off more than 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Some experts estimate that the cremation industry produces more than 360,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually. Mercury is also a major byproduct of cremation, mostly due to dental fillings. Comparatively, human composting doesn’t require toxic fluids for embalming and carries a low emission burden. While the process has yet to be studied on a larger scale, Recompose claims that human composting can save an estimated metric ton of CO2 emissions per person.
It’s also a cheaper option: Human composting costs $5,500 per person plus transportation fees at Recompose. Compared to the price of a burial plot or cremation — which can end up around $10,000 — human composting could offer huge savings.
And there’s also the philosophical benefit of human composting, which advocates say can feel more aligned for people who live with an environmentally sustainable mindset. Composting allows other things to grow and nutrients to pass onward, which appeals to people who want to “pay it forward” in the growth cycle. Some people have even touted this option as the most productive, optimized way to die.
Of course, human composting is also somewhat controversial in certain circles. The Catholic Church denounced the process and encouraged its members to opt for traditional burials instead. Some people find the process to be disconcerting and uncivilized. And there are still process-related issues to figure out, namely around what to do with human bodies that contain non-organic materials like dental fillings and other hardware. (At the moment, Recompose removes non-organic materials like hip replacements through hand-sorting.)
But overall, the idea of human composting is catchy and it appears to offer an environmental bang for your buck. As for Recompose, the company is quickly expanding, as interest has already far outstripped their capacity — and this is only the beginning.