That's Weird: Human Composting
Turning loved ones into compost after they die sounds icky -- but many argue it's a greener way to say goodbye.
In 'That's Weird,' we explore how science's strangest developments are paradigm shifting.
“On a chilly spring day, her family gathered in a nondescript, hangar-style building tucked between a belt rubber warehouse, recycling facilities, and an air quality testing company. Staff had placed Sharon’s body in a vessel filled with alfalfa, straw, sawdust, and notes written in biodegradable ink… By early summer, all that would be left of their matriarch was a few hundred pounds of rich, dark soil.”
The process that a deceased body undergoes to return to the soil isn’t as straightforward as it seems. It’s also illegal in most places – or at least, its legality began to be contested only when, beginning in 2019, a few states in the United States explicitly legalized the practice known as natural organic reduction (NOR), also colloquially called “human composting.”
NOR is a new method of bidding farewell to the dead: unlike burial or cremation, it involves artificially turning the body into nutrient-rich soil which, when added to vegetation, helps it grow.
Compost, as we know, is natural fertilizer that nourishes soil, allowing it to retain water and saving it from erosion. Organic waste is recycled as compost to help plants grow better. And as far as the “green death” movement – which advocates for environmentally sustainable funerals – is concerned, there’s no reason that human bodies shouldn’t be brought under the ambit of composting – we are, at the end of the day, sentient organic matter ourselves.
Besides, traditional funeral methods cost the environment a lot. Cremation releases tons of carbon dioxide and mercury into the air. Embalming utilizes 800,000 gallons of toxic chemicals annually. And casket burials, besides releasing embalming chemicals into the air and contaminating groundwater, require wood, which means a lot of deforestation. Human composting, on the other hand, does not release any toxic chemicals into the air, does not require toxic chemicals, and aids rather than destroys the growth of vegetation, including trees.
The idea was reportedly first proposed by an architecture student, Katrina Spade, in her graduate thesis in 2013. Since then, she has worked with soil scientists and investors to push for NOR’s legalization in Washington – with other American states to soon follow. The process is fully legal in Sweden, BBC reported. “Our bodies have nutrients… What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?” Spade told the New York Times.
Here’s how it works, as per one facility’s process. The body is placed in a vessel consisting of alfalfa, straw, and sawdust, where it begins to undergo a process called “aerobic digestion” (for context: anaerobic decomposition, or decomposition using microorganisms that do not require oxygen, releases gasses like methane into the atmosphere – not a favorable outcome for the planet). Aerobic digestion, on the other hand, is when microorganisms consumer the body as organic matter for oxygen. At the end of this process, the body turns into gas – which composting facilities treat before releasing into the air. What’s left after that is nutrient-rich, soil-like material, and bones – the latter is broken down into smaller bits that microbes can break down quickly. The end result is finally a heap of soil that is returned to families – which they can use as they would use regular soil, in personal gardens or any space meant for plants and greenery to flourish.
“Physically, you would not know the difference between other types of compost,” said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University (who also is the scientific advisor for Recompose, an NOR facility). “What you see is some remnants of the plant material, so some of the straw and wood chips and shavings that were in there. All of it has darkened somewhat because of the development of humic acids. But it smells pleasant, it looks just like compost.”
From a climate perspective, there is another advantage. “When human composting transforms the organic material of our bodies, carbon is also sequestered in the soil created. Rather than being released as carbon dioxide gas through exhaust during a cremation, the carbon matter contained in each body returns to the earth,” Spade told CNN. Only three things disqualify a body from the NOR process: Ebola, Tuberculosis, and diseases caused by prions, which are pathogenic agents that cause abnormal folding of brain proteins.
According to Jennifer DeBruyn, professor of biosystems engineering and soil science at the University of Tennessee, composting corpses has a precedent in agriculture, where farmers are advised to do so with their livestock as opposed to burying them. Natural burials release ammonia and nitrogen that can “kill off all vegetation near the body for over a year,” according to Joan Bytheway, of the Applied Anatomical Research Center, at Sam Houston State University.
Still, there’s limited research to show that this process is environmentally sustainable enough to make the case that it’s substantially greener than traditional options. According to Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial council, the machinery and equipment used in NOR processes use electricity themselves – which means it isn’t as carbon-free as it ideally should be.
But is the way we handle death currently really so bad? “Death certainly isn’t the biggest environmental impact we have in our life process. But we can still look for new alternatives,” Carpenter-Boggs told The Guardian. It’s legal to simply bury bodies without embalming or placing them in caskets (provided it’s not on public land) – so why all the attention (and effort) towards human composting? “It seems uniquely positioned at a nexus of climate change policy and new technology that appeals to the Silicon Valley ethos,” Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and author, told The Guardian. Indeed, the industry is poised to grow to a billion dollar one. “There is a newer disconnect between the fundamental idea of ritual around death in human composting versus a bizarre appeal to Silicon Valley that is emerging.”
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church opposes the ongoing movement to legalize human composting across US states, reasoning that human beings should not be treated like “household waste.” Steve Pehanich, spokesperson of California’s Catholic Conference, said, “We believe that ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence [for the remains].” At its core, the contention over human composting is its disruption of the idea of the immortal soul. Besides, the process takes much longer than traditional methods, prolonging an already difficult grieving process.
For some, however, the idea of death’s longevity holds symbolic meaning. “I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves,” said Eileen Weresch, mother to a person who underwent the process, Atmos reported.
Some interpret the movement for human composting as a shift in our relationship with death – away from viewing it as a religious process. “The fast-rising popularity of green burial and human composting is both a symptom of, and a process for, a re-calibration with death that secular types in the U.S. and beyond are undergoing right now. I think of it as a quiet revolution of the human spirit,” said Shannon Lee Dawdy, director of the film I Like Dirt, on death practices in America.
But the concept of human composting may not even be that new for others. “I like to refer to green burial and natural organic reduction as neo-traditional,” Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law and the author of The Law of Human Remains, told Vox. “We’re not inventing some radical new way of disposing of human remains. We’re just basically going back to basics,” she said.
Ultimately, composting human bodies is a fraught process that brings up as many questions as it answers: significantly, about what life means, and the significance of its end. As the philosopher Donna Haraway puts it: “And in compost, we’re at table with, including those who will return us to the Earth in our dying. I like the word ‘compost’ because it includes living and dying. If you’re in compost, the questions of finitude and mortality are prominent, not in some kind of depressive or tragic way, but those who will return our flesh to the Earth are in the making of compost.”
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.