Our death care rituals are moving through an epoch of change. Traditional funerals are in decline and cheap direct cremation is in high demand. But, as the cremation rate grows exponentially in the U.S. (expected to reach almost 80% by 2035), it seems others are seeking out more eco-friendly alternative disposition methods.
What is human composting?
Human composting is an accelerated method of human decomposition. It is scientifically referred to as Natural Organic Reduction (NOR). The body is placed in a steel container along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Oxygen and heat are applied to the container to speed the process of decomposition.
What is involved in the process to compost a human body?
The deceased body is gently placed into a steel cylinder 8-foot by 4-foot, and wood chips, straw, and alfalfa are added. Oxygen is added to the cylinder to speed the decomposition process by increasing the growth of microbes that perform their role of breaking down the organic matter. The cylinder interior heat is kept at around 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is the optimal temperature range for safe and efficient composting, and maximum operation of the microbe organisms feeding on the organic matter of the body.
The contents of the cylinder are “blended” regularly throughout the process to help break up remaining bone fragments. When the body is fully composted, the cylinder produces one cubic yard of soil. Any inorganic medical implants are removed from the soil.
What happens to the bones when a body is composted?
The “blending” conducted by staff throughout the 30-day composting process is aimed at helping to break down softened bones into smaller bone fragments. However, it has not been revealed what may happen with the total decomposition of the human skeleton.
In which states is human composting legal?
Human composting was first legalized in Washington in 2019. Katrina Spade of Recompose spearheaded a bill to introduce the process of “natural organic reduction” (NOR) as a means to organically compost human remains into soil.
Colorado followed suit in April 2021 as the Colorado Senate voted to legalize NOR, it has now been legalized in Oregon.
It is worth noting here that a caveat of the bill is that it “prohibits any human composting businesses from: selling soil containing human remains; commingling the soil or human remains of multiple people without their consent; and using the soil to grow food.”
A family can have the soil remains returned to them for their own personal interment or scattering, or donate the soil to a conservation organization.
California and New York have bills passing through the legislature to legalize human composting.
How much does human composting cost?
The price for a human composting disposition is currently between $4,000 – $5,500.
How long does it take for the process to reduce the body?
Under these controlled conditions, the human body should pass through decomposition in about 4-6 weeks. The resulting ‘soil’ can be returned to the family, or to a conservation entity. (The resulting soil will be very nutrient-rich and make excellent fertilizer.)
How ‘green’ or eco-friendly is human composting?
It is said that the process uses an eighth of the energy that a flame cremation uses, making it much more energy-saving and environmentally friendly. In terms of emissions, the process saves 1 metric ton of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Flame cremation in the U.S. produces as much CO2 as burning 800,000 barrels of oil – for an individual. This is equivalent to taking a flight from London to Rome.
How is human composting being accepted by the funeral industry and religious groups?
The green funeral and natural burial communities have embraced this innovation in eco-friendly death care. It is seen largely as an extension of the natural burial composting process being made more available for urban dwellers.
I think that the funeral industry as a whole does not yet regard this new innovation in disposition as mainstream, or any kind of realistic threat to their current business. Albeit, this was a mistake many funeral professionals made about flame cremation and water cremation.
However, there has been a less enthusiastic response from certain factions who perceive the whole idea as rather gruesome and ‘icky’. The Catholic Church has denounced human composting as “disrespectful”, a similar reaction they originally made to the introduction of cremation.
Companies currently involved in Human Composting
Recompose is the leading human composting company. Founded by Katrina Spade who has been a key figure in leading the way and advocating for this new eco-friendly death care option. You can visit their website to learn more about their facility in Washington – The Greenhouse, and proposed new facility in Colorado. Recompose opened with 10 vessels (instead of the planned 32) as COVID impacted on their investment funding.
Recompose charges $5,500 for Natural Organic Reduction and this includes all services. Recompose have a licensed funeral director and can therefore conduct all related death care services.
Return Home was inspired by Recompose and the concept of end-of-life terramation services. As the process cannot be patented, Micah Truman founded his human composting company. Return Home is offering prices at slightly less than Recompose. Return Home operates 65 vessels at their Washington facility, with plans to expand to California and Colorado.
Return Home fees start at $3,800 but this does not include transportation to the facility or other funeral home services such as obtaining the death certificate and permits. Estimated costs for this are around $400 – $600.
Herland Forest is a natural-burial cemetery in Klickitat County and has received its NOR license. Their general price list quotes Natural Organic Reduction for $3,000. Again, this does not include transportation or other funeral director services.
Human Composting vs. Natural Burial
I think Natural Organic Reduction, which does sound more appealing than human composting, will remain a niche within the death care industry. I can see how it can provide an eco-solution for those wishing a greener disposition, especially in large urban areas, where the options for a simple green burial in a natural burial ground are not an option.
But, in reality, would an improved logistics and availability of natural burial grounds, not also provide a solution for expanding eco-burial?
More green cemeteries are emerging across the U.S., even traditional cemeteries adding a designated green section to cater to this demand. With so much rural greenspace across the states, and a network of funeral homes and transportation services, can a simple ‘natural organic reduction’ not be offered as an option within a reasonable distance from urban areas?
It will be an interesting disposition development to follow. I am pretty certain that we will witness a cultural shift towards greener death care alternatives. But I think I would opt for my remains to naturally decompose in a conservation area, and return to the earth in eternity. Rather than a quick reduction in a steel vat to produce a bucket of soil.