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June 26, 2019 Brigitte Ganger

Human Composting: New Remains Handling Technique Returns Bodies to the Earth

A sustainable way to honor the dead

Human Composting: New Remains Handling Technique Returns Bodies to the Earth
Human composting is coming to Washington state in 2020. This new sustainable method of remains handling can compost a human body into usable gardening soil in 30 days. (Getty Images)

Burial and cremation are the most common methods of handling a body in most parts of the world. With Washington set to become the first US state to allow human composting, some are weighing a new option for remains handling. 


What is 'human composting'?


Human composting is the practice of allowing bodies to naturally decompose above ground. The body is placed in an open container surrounded by other biodegradable materials that encourage decomposition, such as wood chips, alfalfa and straw. The mixture is aerated using fans to speed up the decomposition process. 


This process can turn a human body into soil within 30 days. The soil can then be used for gardening. 


Benefits of human composting


Modern death practices go to great lengths to shield mourners from decay. Many aren't comfortable with the idea of viewing a loved one's body unless it has been restored through embalming techniques. But seeing death is a natural part of life. If you are struggling to wrap your mind around the idea of leaving a loved one's body to naturally rot, consider some of the potential benefits of human composting:




  • Minimizing environmental impact




In a traditional burial, a body is placed in a casket and buried in a cemetery. Embalming chemicals, clothing, jewelry and other materials are often buried with the body, as well as the casket. Caskets are often made of steel, bronze, copper or hardwood, and include cushioning for the body to lay on. Some families bury personal artefacts along with a family member as well. 


When these materials are buried, they disrupt the earth, soil, and nearby ecosystems. Cremation is less impactful, but also contributes to air pollution. If human composting became mainstream, it could help minimize the impact of death on the planet.




  • Nourishing the planet




Many people who view a loved one's body are struck by the difference that life makes. Without breath, a pulse and animation, a body may seem unfamiliar—even to those who knew the person well. When someone's spirit is so obviously missing from their physical body, it can be easier to say goodbye. But not all is lost. Human bodies are full of the same kinds of nutrients that feed soil when any organic creature passes away. Sky burials have existed for thousands of years as a dual method of feeding wildlife and removing bodies.


Burying or burning human remains may make the process of death easier for the grieving, but it also destroys the process of returning our bodies' nutrients to the earth after death. Unlike other purported 'green' burials, human composting has the potential to do more than reduce environmental impact. This method of remains handling could create a net benefit for the earth by providing soil and more opportunity to grow vegetation.  




  • Space considerations




The world is running out of burial space, particularly in larger cities. This is an increasingly expensive challenge for those who hope for a full traditional burial when they pass away. Human composting could actually add space via soil creation rather than taking up more space. 


According to death positives, everyone should feel empowered to be involved in loved ones' death care. When human composting becomes commercially available, it will take place in designated facilities that handle the decomposition process. Plans for this are still in the works, but design mockups show that the space could work as a place to visit and even take part in caring for the body as it undergoes natural decomposition. Families could have the option of being more or less involved, depending on their interest and comfort level.


The space needed for human composting is not ever-expanding, like in cemeteries. Instead, funeral homes with a facility for composting can create more usable soil, without tilling the land and taking away limited usable city space. 




  • Memorialization




There are many forms of permanent memorialization that families rely on to pay tribute to the life of a beloved person who has passed. Memorial plaques, benches and tombstones offer a physical location to visit and remember someone who has passed. Memorial trees are more environmentally beneficial way to create a space to mourn and share memories. Typically trees are planted along with cremated remains. 


If human composting were to become a legal and regulated way of handling remains, families could have greater options for establishing memorial gardens. Instead of depositing cremated remains into the flower bed or at the root of a tree, the entire planting ground could be a tribute to the person who is gone. And all that grows serves as a continuation of life.


Limitations


New access to human composting could signify a significant change in the way we think about death and remains handling. Although the environmental benefits are undeniable, can this practice really replace time-honored traditions like burial and cremation?


More and more people are identifying as death positive. The death positivity movement is reframing the narrative around death in a way that emphasizes harm reduction for people and the planet. The concept of human composting fits into the ideals of death positivity. It encourages exposure to loved ones' as they steadily decompose, and also provides a more environmentally conscious alternative to burial and cremation—these are two of the tenets of this emerging philosophy


But is it even possible for this new practice to compete with methods that completely shield the living from having to confront death? In a recent survey, over 33% of respondents expressed negative sentiments toward the idea of planning their own funeral. Many people would prefer not to confront death and especially not decay. It may be difficult to make this method of remains handling mainstream enough to stay in business.


Grieving families aren't often thinking about ethical dilemmas when arranging funerals. Because of this, it may take some time for this practice to catch on, despite the obvious benefits.


The future of death care


Every person should be able to make choices for their own remains handling and memorialization. Embalming, burial, cremation and other more traditional methods are valid. These practices have helped humans to cope with grief and bury their dead for thousands of years. However, many people now believe that it is possible to reduce environmental harm by changing the ways we perceive death and handle our dead. 


For now, human composting has only been approved in Washington state, and is set to become available to consumers by May 2020. This innovative method of remains handling could be just the first step in making the death care industry more environmentally ethical and death positive. This method is safe, practical and likely much more affordable that a traditional cemetery burial. With these benefits in mind, perhaps other states will see more widespread legislative approval of human composting. 

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