If the idea of body composting makes you squeamish, you’re not alone. We don’t like to think about death, especially when it comes to the physical aspect of what happens to our bodies after we die. But burial and cremation, our standard methods of disposing of human remains, aren’t great for the environment.
Enter the sustainable death movement. People are searching for ways to dispose of bodies with respect and dignity — without harming the planet in the process.
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
While we may be more familiar with traditional funeral practices, embalming and cremation are simply not environmentally friendly. These methods consume natural resources and pollute the Earth. According to Science, cemeteries take up about 500 square kilometers in the United States, while embalming consumes millions of liters of chemicals each year. Cremation is often seen as the less expensive and more environmentally friendly option, but the process consumes natural gas and produces greenhouse emissions.
In May 2020, Washington will become the first state to legalize natural organic reduction, in other words, body composting.
“With natural organic reduction, the process is so complete that you’re just left with plain old soil” says Jamie Pedersen, the Washington state senator who sponsored the bill.
The bill also included another option called alkaline hydrolysis or resomation, which is a water-based method of reducing a body to dust. This method has been used in at least 19 other states since the 1990s and in some parts of the United Kingdom, according to The Guardian. In this method, a body is placed into a container of warm water with a base such as lye, and the liquid, heat and pressure reduce the body to dust.
Other earth-friendly options include more natural burials, such as skipping the embalming fluids and burying the body in a basic casket made from biodegradable materials. In 2019, actor Luke Perry’s body was laid to rest wearing a special suit designed to aid in composting. The New Yorker reports that the burial suit was made of “mushrooms and other microorganisms that help decompose the body, transfer nutrients to plants, and neutralize toxins.”
How Body Composting Works
Katrina Spade, the founder and C.E.O. of a Seattle-based startup called Recompose approached Pedersen about legalizing body composting. The process is designed to accelerate what naturally happens to bodies after we die, decomposition. By creating conditions that allow microorganisms to thrive, Recompose can turn a body into soil in 30 days.
“My main concern was, if you permit something different, that isn’t what we’ve always done, do we have any assurance that there’s no potential for spread of disease,” Pedersen says.
He explains that a study at Washington State University (WSU) that was testing options for body composting concluded that “the body is reduced to soil that was indistinguishable from gardening soil with no possibility of transmission of disease.”
The soil also meets safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for such contaminants as heavy metals, according to Science.
It turns out that body composting is so safe and efficient that it’s a widely-accepted practice in agriculture.
“It’s quite common across the whole country, and it’s often the preferred recommendation for the industry,” says Thomas Bass, a sustainable agriculture researcher and educator at Montana State University.
As part of his job, Bass advises farmers on what to do in the case of disease, such as bird flu. Often, he says, composting is the best option for pathogen reduction because the natural heat from microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi kill the virus during the decomposition process.
When farms deal with animal deaths, Bass says that burying the bodies is not ideal because this takes up precious land on the farm and delays the natural decomposition process.
“They don’t break down once buried,” he says. He adds, “[the body] sort of just becomes entombed in an environment without oxygen.”
Bass co-authored a report on livestock mortality composting published by Montana State University. In the report, the authors explain that farmers can consider composting to be the practice of farming beneficial microorganisms. In agriculture, the process is simple. You need a nutrient source (the body), plus a little bit of nitrogen (from something green) and lots of carbon (from something bulky such as woodchips or cornstalks). Then, make sure to encourage oxygen flow by allowing proper airflow and turning the compost at certain intervals. Under these conditions, Bass explains, microorganisms reduce the waste material while giving off heat that raises the temperature to a range that is high enough to kill many pathogens.
“It’s really about using these beneficial microbes to digest the nutrient-rich carcass down to fundamental elements and compounds,” Bass explains. “It’s ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ and you’re accelerating it through the composting microbes.”
According to WBUR, Recompose uses a similar process for human bodies. The body is placed into a container with a carbon- and a nitrogen-heavy mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. A fan system provides air to encourage microbial growth. Within a month, the body breaks down into two wheelbarrows full of soil.
Respectful Sustainable Death Practices
Is composting human bodies different from animals?
“The big reveal is, technically it is no different. It’s just making sure that you would manage certain social-cultural expectations in the process,” explains Bass.
Body composting may technically be an ideal way to dispose of a body, but translating this common agricultural practice to humans is more complicated. There are a variety of funeral traditions around the world, ranging from mummification to burial, cremation and more sustainable options. Now, natural organic reduction, also known as composting, is another option to consider.
Pedersen says, “It’s an intensely personal issue that gets to the core of what it means to be a human being.”
Whether the end result is a box containing an embalmed body, an urn of ashes or a wheelbarrow of soil, loved ones can honor the deceased person in different ways. Pedersen says that during the legalization process, the most compelling testimony came from the friend of a terminal cancer patient who had volunteered to be part of the body composting study at WSU.
“She was a huge environmentalist and she was just tortured by the idea that her final act on the earth was either going to have to be being buried with all these chemicals and then permanently taking up a place on earth or being cremated and using all of this energy to burn up her remains,” says Pedersen.
He says that the woman’s friend explained that it was a huge psychological comfort for her to know that by participating in the study, she was helping to pave the path for other people to follow sustainable death practices.
“Family and friends spread her soil out in her garden with all her flowers and it was, for them, a really beautiful sort of circle,” Pedersen says. “She was literally becoming a part of the plants that she loved.”