Cue creepy woo-woo music…
Late that night, Sally was awakened by a strange whispering sound outside her window. Unnerved, she dressed and slipped outside to find the source of the haunting sound. Her heart leapt into her throat as the whispering voice began calling her name.
“Saaallly… Saaallly… Why did you do this to me?”
Sally fell to her knees beside the flower bed and began to cry. “Oh Grandmother,” she wailed, “I’m so sorry I composted you.” It was at that moment that the flowers reached for her…
Okay it’s not that creepy, but since I was not aware of this whole thing (ignorance can be blissful) until my buddy Ron pointed it out to me the other day, absorbing it and deciding what I thought about it did get a little creepy in the beginning. My imagination is way too active for my own good.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee has signed SB 5001. This bill makes “natural organic reduction” – otherwise known as “human composting” – legal in Washington State. Yep, your remains can now be converted to soil. You could scatter your grandmother in the flowerbed where her favorite flowers have grown for decades, and you would have a permanent reminder of this wonderful, deceased woman. Sound creepy? Yeah, me too.
I find myself torn on this whole thing. The practical side of me recognizes that cemeteries are taking up more and more real estate all over the country. There will come a time when we’re forced to ask, “where do we put the dead people?” The emotional side of me is like “ew yuck.” What if I ate a tomato that grew from composted soil containing human remains? It’s gross to think about.
But let’s look at it in another (equally gross) way. You drink water. You go pee. You flush. The pee goes to a treatment plant and ends up coming through your tap again. And the cycle continues. You drink water that has been everything from beef broth to mule piss every single day. You ain’t been hurt. Oh, and that fresh spring water you guzzle from a plastic bottle? You know, the stuff that came from a cold mountain spring in Canada? Think “moose pee.”
So you’re already ingesting something that’s been something else you don’t want to think about. Is it safe? With the occasional scandalous exception, yes. Clean? Yes. Gross? If you over-think it, yes.
So, how does this process work?
According to dialectzone.org…
The effort has been partly driven by Katrina Spade, a Seattle-based designer and entrepreneur who is 2014, formed the so-called Urban Death Project, which allowed her to investigate the composting of human remains, while completing a master’s degree in architecture.
She liaised with researchers at Western Carolina and Washington State universities, most notably Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, professor of soil science at Washington State, to find the best way to break down human remains.
Katrina Spade is the CEO of the human composting company, Recompose, and told CNN affiliate KIRO-TV she is hoping her company can be one of the first to build a facility for the practice.
She explained to KIRO the complex process of turning a dead body into soil.
“(The) body is covered in natural materials, like straw or wood chips, and over the course of about three to seven weeks, thanks to microbial activity, it breaks down into soil,” she said.
While the dead body is being broken down, Spade said families of the deceased will be able to visit her facility and will ultimately receive the soil that remains of their loved. It is up to the family how they want to use that soil, Spade said.
“And if they don’t want that soil, we’ll partner with local conservation groups around the Puget Sound region so that that soil will be used to nourish the land here in the state,” she said.
A friend of mine brought up the topic of leftover human DNA in the compost, as this was contributing to his own yuck factor. I was unable to find any material on the subject specific to human composting. But I did finally locate a study that answered the question in a roundabout way. It concerned the effectiveness of composting as a method of destroying the DNA of a euthanized transgenic animal. Apparently the composting worked in this regard, if I was understanding the jargon correctly. I’m a truck driver, not a scientist.
Pros and Cons…
As I mentioned above, cemeteries are taking up a lot of space, and the need for more space will likely increase even though many people are now opting for cremation. From what I’ve read on the topic, about half of Americans now opt for cremation. People in areas like southern Louisiana where there is so much water lurking just beneath the surface mostly quit burying the dead long ago, opting instead for above-ground mausoleums. Otherwise, a coffin would eventually just push its way up to the surface (again: ew, yuck).
One can easily make the case that composting is healthier for the environment than cremation since it does not use fossil fuels, and it literally recycles a corpse into something that can be beneficial to the environment. I’m no tree-hugger, but even a crusty old guy like me recognizes that we have to be responsible stewards of our world.
Aside from the yuck factor (which is just my personal reaction), I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s pricey, with costs projected to fall in between a conventional burial and cremation. But I’m probably not the only one with misgivings about it. We’re already walking around on human and animal remains that have been there for centuries. I guess it just feels different when you’re thinking of it.
I was surprised to learn that there is another outfit in Washington that already does something very similar to what Recompose is trying to do. Herland Forest already has what it calls a “natural burial” service. They dig a hole, drop the corpse in with a layer of wood chips, and cover it up. It’s done in a forested area instead of a specially-built silo like Recompose. I had wrongly assumed that burial without a coffin and grave liner was illegal.
How does this square with religious beliefs?
The Vatican over the years has gone back and forth regarding cremation. According to the Holy See website, it’s now permissible if:
“The bodies of the departed must be treated with love and respect. Their cremation is permitted provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”
It remains to be seen what the official response to composting will be, but there are a lot of Catholic bloggers and news sites chiming in and most seemed outraged by the idea:
- Catholic Philly
- “Anyone paying attention to the churnings of American politics knows that the coastal strip of the Pacific Northwest, between Eugene, Oregon, and the northern suburbs of Seattle, is an asylum of political correctness, fueled by what a cultural anthropologist might call substitute religions. What was already the most unchurched part of the country when I lived there from 1975 to 1984 has experimented, over the past four decades, with various ultramundane religiosities — from socialism to radical feminism to gender theory to the most esoteric forms of environmentalism — often layering one mania on top of another. With human composting, this madcap exercise has now been turned inside out, demonstrating the ancient truth that the worship of false gods — in this case, Gaia, or the Earth — is a sure prescription for lethal incongruity.”
- The Catholic Eye
- Indeed, it would make no difference at all if there were no soul. The great accomplishment of the ecologists who created “recomposition” is not engineering the mechanical contraption that turns humans into compost. It is overturning those “unwritten and unchanging laws” embedded in human nature by which people have sensed the need for reverencing the dead from time immemorial.
The seemingly harmless process of “recomposition” is like the proclamation of an anti-metaphysical manifesto that implicitly denies the existence of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the need for Redemption. It leads to still more radical insinuations that life is meaningless, and history is pointless.
Some friends of mine who are Baptist preachers shared their thoughts with me on the matter (edited slightly for length and clarity)…
As you no doubt have observed, there are often two aspects of reactions, two elements that are quite different from each other, but are not always seen that way by the people reacting. There is the genuinely religious (Christian/Biblical) aspect, and there is the cultural aspect. And very often among even the best Christians their real reaction is to the cultural element (“we’ve never done it that way before”), but instinctively go looking for some verse or other Christian element to support their cultural reaction. That said, I [can’t] think of anything in the purely Biblical/Christian realm that says that this is wrong — that God is against it. I will admit, though, that initially it does somewhat disturb my cultural equilibrium — “we just don’t do that kind of thing.” I know myself well enough to anticipate that when the initial push-back wears off (in an hour or a day or a month), I’ll likely be, “okay, it’s not something I’m likely to do, but hey to each his own.” After all, all we’re doing is beating the worms to the job.
My first thought on this is that there doesn’t seem to be much difference in human composting and cremation. That seems to be becoming more acceptable in our culture today. And when we die, we return to dust anyway – whether we’re in Aunt Bess’s zinnia bed or in a pearl casket.
I dont see any issues from a faith perspective on “composting people” and I have also talked to my wife about just cremating me and tossing me into the ocean lol. I can see the Icky factor of walking out to the front lawn and stepping on Joe and Steve from down the road lol. From a sociological perspective I do have some concerns on how culturally it will affect people the less we are able to “see” the spot where our loved ones lay.
I haven’t looked into the research but I know that it helps some people through the grieving and restoration process to be able to “visit” someone at their grave. I feel like the more we get away from that through cremation and “composting” that it could have some negative effect on us culturally in some way but obviously that’s just some educated opinion and not looking at a study at this point. Personally I can’t think of any scripture that would conflict with the practice, Catholics tend to associate the burning of bodies with those who were cursed and condemned and therefore see it that way today which is why most of them shun the practice. Some also think our bodies can’t be resurrected if they are burned up but that also doesn’t hold any Biblical merit.
As Don mentioned above, there is a cultural aspect to this whole thing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been to Antioch Cemetery near Fairfield, TX (my birthplace) to visit my father’s grave. We honor our dead, in our way, by attempting to preserve their remains and placing monuments beside their final resting places. But realistically, can we continue to do this? Our planet has a finite amount of space. Our population is growing. More people means more graves.
Do I need a marker on a patch of ground to honor and remember my father? Not really. I can sit right here and think back to all the times I had with him. I can dig out a photo album and see him smiling, working, and holding me when I was baby. I can bury myself (‘scuse the pun) in those memories anytime I wish without driving 8 hours to his gravesite. And yeah, how we handle our dead is a small thing compared to some of the more pressing environmental issues. But it is an issue. Ignore it long enough and it will become a major issue.
We don’t like it when we’re told we have to change. We don’t like it when our mistakes are pointed out to us. We’ve handled a lot of the big stuff. The fires on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio (1952 and 1969), caused by pollution, were an eye opener for many in the 50s and 60s. Our cars and trucks run much cleaner than they once did. Our factories have drastically cut their emissions. And yes, some of the regulations are a major pain in the ass, and some are pointless. Overall, we’re doing a better job. But we still have a ways to go. Like it or not, things like population growth and climate change are real in spite of their being politicized by the Left. We have to change how we do things or we’ll literally kill our planet and ourselves along with it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson once told Larry King that when he died he wanted to be buried rather than cremated so that his body would return the energy and such back to the world that provided them. That’s an honorable sentiment. As mentioned above, graveyard space, especially in metro areas, is becoming an issue. And here is another issue – have you ever thought about what’s involved in a conventional burial? The steel? The concrete? The chemicals? And all this just to slow (not stop) the process of decomposition? Is it worth it? In truth, I don’t think so.
To me, the body is nothing but life support and transportation for the mind. When the body dies, the mind dies with it. Or if you’re a theist, the soul exits the body to the Great Beyond. Either way, the body becomes little more than a meat-sack. We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. We’re not special. We’re not sacred. Most of us unwittingly spend our lives consuming natural resources and polluting our environment. Is it not fitting that in the end we at least freely give ourselves back to the world that spawned and sustained us? Nature is cyclical. We preach recycling for the stuff we dispose of. We convert cans to cars or old paper to “new” paper. What’s wrong with recycling ourselves? Some donate their organs to science or to save the lives of others. It seems also sensible that we give the rest of ourselves back to nature, rather than surrendering to human vanity and assuming that our rotting corpse has value locked away in an underground vault.
So yeah, in spite of “yuck” and “creepy” I find myself rethinking how my remains should be disposed of when I finally kick the bucket. I wouldn’t want to be mulch in someone’s flower bed, but hey, dump me in the woods along the Natchez Trace Parkway. That’d be kind of cool. Maybe I can help grow another tall Mississippi pine tree.
Amazing fact: I managed to get through this entire mess without ever mentioning Soylent Green. If you don’t know what that is, you’re too young.
Sources and Related Reading
- Washington becomes the first state to legalize composting of humans
- Want to scatter a Catholic’s ashes? Nope, says the Vatican.
- Washington passes bill to become first state to compost human bodies
- Recompose Website
- Herland Forest Website
- Catholic Philly
- Catholic Eye
- America’s Looming Burial Crisis
- Cuyahoga River Fire
- Transgene and mitochondrial DNA are indicators of efficient composting of transgenic pig carcasses