Six different states in the U.S. have legalized human composting over the past half a decade, allowing family members to compost their loved ones remains into healthy soil. However, it has also been met with criticism.
New York was the latest state to permit the unique practice, approving regulations on January 1, 2023. Washington was the first to do so in 2019, followed by Oregon, Colorado, California and Vermont.
With research showing traditional burials’ negative environmental impacts, some have advocated for a more natural process of bodily decomposition.
Several human composting firms claim that their services may prevent a tonne of carbon emissions compared to traditional cremation or burials.
Human composting facilities place cadavers in closed vessels filled with similar materials in an average composting container – woodchips, straw grass and other fibers. The bodies are then broken down by microbes and gradually heated to eliminate parasites or diseases.
The process takes over a month to complete. Once the body has fully broken down, the final result can be used as a base or fertilizer for trees, vegetables and flowers.
Proponents have praised states for legalizing the practice despite mortuary taboos. In response to New York’s decision, service provider Return Home said the states have taken “a huge step for accessible green death care nationwide.”
However, some religious institutions have come against the practice. For example, New York Catholic bishops deemed the practice immoral, arguing that human bodies shouldn’t be disposed of like “household waste.”
Modern burial problems
Despite morbid implications, human composting is considered a natural process of “organic reduction,” commonly found long before the advent of present-day burial practices.
Over the centuries, it has fallen out of practice in favor of casket burials and cremations, but activists bemoan the various tolls associated with modern burial techniques.
“Current funerary practices are environmentally problematic. Each year, 2.7 million people die in the U.S., and most are buried in a conventional cemetery or cremated,” death care provider Recompense said.
Morticians often use embalming liquids in modern burials to preserve cadavers for open-casket funerals. These embalming fluids end up buried with the body, slowly contaminating the surrounding land.
Furthermore, burials occupy vast swaths of land and consume massive amounts of wood for caskets and coffins.
Cremation is arguably a greener option for the bereaved, with the rate of U.S. cremation doubling to 57 percent in the past 15 years. Yet, the method still has its set of caveats, needing large amounts of energy to achieve its blisteringly high temperatures.
Traditional cremation also releases toxins like carbon dioxide into the air, worsening environmental issues.
Old, natural solutions
Humans have grieved and processed death through burials for centuries, with caskets and cremations featured in numerous religions.
Back in 2019, when Washington approved the legislation, critics raised concerns regarding the nature of human composting in a spiritual and emotional sense, speculating whether it is respectful to tradition and the dead.
“Will people’s bodies be cared for honorably? And will we continue to be able to remember them as parts of our communities?” said David Sloane, a professor in urban planning, policy, history and community health planning at USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Proponents of human composting, however, insist that the process is as respectful as it is natural to the average life cycle. Seattle resident Nina Schoen described how nature could change human bodies in its own time without intervention.
“What’s most important to me is that after I’m gone, my body is able to give back to this earth that has supported me, and through that create new life,” Schoen said.
Other countries have also legalized human composting, despite similar religious and critical concerns. The practice is legal throughout Sweden, while the United Kingdom allows natural burials.