Human composting could revolutionize how we deal with death
“I want my children to remember me when they look at the trees."
Beth Mandel Harrison, a soft spoken, 55-year-old baker based in New York’s Saratoga Springs has never really understood the appeal of a traditional funeral.
When Harrison dies, she has grander plans than a plot of land in a cemetery, replete with headstone. She wants to be a tree.
Or, more accurately, she wants to be the nutrients on which trees may thrive.
That’s because, upon her death, Harrison wants to be composted into soil.
Harrison’s dreams may sound strange, but she is far from alone in her ambitions.
Human composting, formally known as natural organic reduction, is becoming increasingly accepted across the United States. This unusual funerary process has been recently made legal in Washington State, and grassroot advocacy groups are trying to normalize it across the nation.
In New York, where Harrison lives, advocacy groups including City Grove are pushing to make human composting the state’s third legally approved funerary method, after burial and cremation. Colorado and California have similar efforts underway. Currently, there are bills to make it legal working their way through New York State’s Assembly and Senate.
If the bills are successful, they could help pave the way for bringing green burial options, and human composting, to a town near you, and give human composting pioneers like Harrison the send-off they desire.
“I want my children to remember me when they look at the trees,” Harrison tells Inverse. “I am a tree. I am something beautiful and natural.”
“I love that I will be the nutrition for a tree that will provide oxygen and beauty to the planet, in harmony with the landscape, not a blight on it,” she says.
“How beautiful, how appropriate, how kind to yourself, to nature, and to future generations.”
Legalizing human composting wouldn’t only make self-proclaimed treehuggers like Harrison happy. It would also address the massive, hidden environmental issues associated with traditional funerary options — such as carbon footprint and ground pollution — as well as offer a solution to the funerary real-estate crisis currently burying America.
“Our mission is to make this available as an option, not pressure anyone into a choice they have apprehension about.”
But to make any of these ambitions a success, first Americans may need to let go of the idea that human composting means leaving a body underground to rot. The actual science of composting reveals that the reality is far less sensational — and far more environmentally friendly.
A delicate process
Human composting may seem like a more natural burial method, but it is actually a precisely managed process that takes place in a lab, not in the ground. It uses the same process as livestock composting, which decomposes big animal carcasses such as cows on farms.
Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, professor of Soil Science and Sustainable Agriculture at Washington State University and leader of the first team to test natural organic reduction on humans, explains to Inverse exactly how the process really works:
First, the body is placed in a specially designed vessel, which may change from location to location, but in these trials it was a closed vessel, rotating, composting drum. The body is put into the vessel alongside a mix of plant-based feedstocks like wood chips and straw on the top and bottom.
“The body is placed into a vessel with a lot of plant materials. The vessels may look quite different from facility to facility,” Carpenter-Boggs says. As part of her research, Carpenter-Boggs has led six pilot trials on six donor bodies to test human composting feasibility. Her findings have not yet been submitted for publication or peer review.
The researchers then introduce batches of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbial communities, and process the body with these microbes at a temperature of up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures recorded every 4 minutes. The microbes decompose the human carcass, generating even more heat as they go.
“It's a rotating vessel, so you have control over aeration,” Carpenter-Boggs says. Regulating moisture, and sending air through the vessel gives the microbes more oxygen. Oxygenation increases their activity, accelerating the decomposition process, and reducing the amount of methane gas produced.
“You can turn the vessel to make sure that all of the materials are mixed together,” Carpenter-Boggs explains, also suggesting the decomposing staff do some stirring. Both these processes make sure everything is breaking down evenly.
Within four to seven weeks in the vessel, bones, teeth, and all other organic matter is deconstructed to the extent that the remains resemble soft soil, much like topsoil, she says. All the metal elements in the carcass become organo-metallic compounds and create humic acids, the molecules in the soil that bind nutrients and water for the roots to suck up.
“It looks much like a compost,” Carpenter-Boggs says. “You can still see remnants of some of those plant materials, but it's all darker.”
After the four weeks, all of the cadavers tested reached skeletonization on the Megyesi scale, which is a scale used to assess decomposition of organic matter.
After human composting, on average a body creates 1.5 to 2 cubic meters of carbon-sequestering compost.
This compost can now be used to feed a farm, a garden, or even a houseplant.
From farm to table
Controlled human composting akin to what Carpenter-Boggs describes would, in practice, not be far off from the same process that goes into composting animal manure or food waste. This is something many farmers and other facilities already do, Amanda Weaver, professor of Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado Denver, tells Inverse.
A helpful way to think about, Weaver says, is as a rapid, highly controlled version of what is already happening in traditional burials.
“There’s probably very little left other than some pretty clean bones of people in those cemeteries,” Weaver tells Inverse. “It's a little bit the same as speeding up the process. Kind of like we would in high heat animal manure or meat composting.”
Weaver, who is based in Colorado and has her own sustainable farm, Five Fridges, has been approached by human-compositing startups requesting to use her farm as a facility. She is interested in the idea, but local county regulations don’t allow it.
But for Weaver, the benefits outweigh the costs. On an environmental level, human composting is much better for the environment than cremation or traditional burial.
“There's lots of carbon mitigation,” Weaver says.
“And we just don't have space. Think about if we converted all of our current cemetery space to growing spaces within the cities, we'd have these fantastic urban spaces.”
Traditional death rites like burial and cremation consume a lot of energy, money, and other resources. According to the 2015 US census, 1 million more Americans will die in 2037 than in 2015 due to a growing, aging population.
Each body cremation, the preferred burial option for Americans, uses up 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, together with harmful chemicals such as mercury, according to the Green Burial Council. As a whole, US cremations yearly release some 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
That’s the same as 22,000 homes, according to Grist.
A standard burial has an even higher environmental cost, according to the Green Burial Council.
“What can we use our body to have meaning or to have benefit to the planet rather than having any emissions?”
The grounds of a 10-acre cemetery bury something close to 1,000 tons of steel, 20,000 tons of concrete, and coffin wood to build more than 40 homes.
The embalming process also pumps toxic chemicals into the ground, including more than 800,000 gallons of cancerogenous formaldehyde each year.
And as more and more people die over the years, cities across the world are running out of space to honor traditional burials.
In the United States, if everybody who is expected to die between 2024 and 2042 was to follow standard burial, we would need 130 square more miles of grave space, according to CityLab.
But according to the experts, human composting could be a practical solution to solve all of the above costs of a traditional send-off. Although less expensive than traditional burial and more expensive than cremation, human composting would provide another option for people to choose.
“Ultimately there is this green trend in the funeral industry, and it's being motivated by the consumer because people are asking the questions of what is their final footprint on the planet going to be,” Nora Menkin, executive director of the Co-op Funeral Home in Washington state, tells Inverse.
“What can we use our body to have meaning or to have benefit to the planet rather than having any emissions?”
Senator Jamie Pedersen, who passed the law legalizing the process in Washington, agrees.
“Permitting natural organic reduction of human remains will allow families to honor the environmental values of those who pass away,” Pederson tells Inverse.
“I think at least shines a light on what the environmental impact of current funeral practices are,” Menkin says.
“We do know that natural organic reduction has a significantly less environmental impact than conventional burial or cremation.”
But despite their enthusiasm, there’s still a lot to work out when it comes to how human composting works, and the research into how to do it safely and at scale is still very much in its early phases.
Normalizing human composting
One of the major hurdles to overcome is that human composting has an ick factor that can’t be ignored. Weaver says that the process may make people think of the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green, in which people made food with human composting.
But she is hopeful that the public will slowly get over the “ish factor,” as she calls it. Although she herself admits she is still a little squeamish about it.
“People will, of course, completely weird out about that until we sort of normalize it,” Weaver tells Inverse. “I think it's going to be getting over people's ‘ish factor:’ this is just dirt at this point. Just like it's ash.”
Her reticence is reflected in the fact that, while it is legal in Washington, only one company, Recompose, is trying to make it actually possible for people to do. Right now, they are still planning and testing their equipment and design.
In New York, advocacy organization City Grove hopes that the law to legalize human composting will pass, but after that, businesses will need to take over on actually making it a viable option for people to choose. Figuring out what facilities will be used, what products can be created, and what options will be offered… is all up to the businesses.
“New York is going to be one of the most difficult states to pass this legislation,” Menkin says, explaining that not only are there several hurdles and laws any funeral process needs to abide by, but New York specifically has very stringent funerary laws.
There are also religious groups worldwide who denounce human composting, because such processes do not fit with some of their traditional rituals and beliefs, and there are important ethical impacts to take into consideration.
David Sloane, Urban History professor at Sol Price School of Public Policy and author of the book Is the Cemetery Dead?, thinks that it’s way too early to tell what impact legalizing human composting in specific states will have on its wider acceptance.
“My impression is that a relatively small number of Americans would stop conventional practices and adopt human composting, so the process is likely to have limited impact on practices or cities for the foreseeable future,” Sloane tells Inverse.
One of the big questions Sloane has about a human-composting burial is “how will people memorialize, if they memorialize at all?”
“How will people 'use' or 'honor' the large amount of remains? Will people feel okay taking only part of Dad with them?”
The cemetery is a complicated cultural institution, Sloane says. They take up a significant percentage of most large cities' open space, and occupy an emotional space, too. Human composting presents one way of moving beyond the cemetery to something more environmentally friendly and sustainable, but Sloane isn’t ready to buy into it yet.
“I am hopeful that as a society we will find ways both to reduce the use of resources and toxins, and at the same time, consider how we can create memorial places in our communities for future generations to be able to look back upon.”
Death days to come
To try and move human composting forward, Carpenter-Boggs knows that the process itself can still be improved. Currently, she and her lab are working towards better understanding how to make the process efficient. That will help design more effective and, perhaps, more cost-effective methods to make this death rite a reality for more Americans.
After having updated her own will to reflect that she wishes to be composted herself, Carpenter-Boggs finds it interesting that one could be worried about what decomposes and what doesn't.
“There are very few studies about what really happens in cemeteries. Where, for instance, the nutrients or pharmaceuticals in those bodies go?”
If anything, human composting may be more well-researched, and double-checked, than traditional burials, she suggests.
“When I die, I believe my spirit will be released and my earthly remains should be returned to earth."
In fact , there is no need for more science to further convince Beth Mandel Harrison. Prior to our interview, Harrison’s family did not formally know that she plans to compost her body after her death, but she says that her husband, David, likely agrees that a traditional burial isn’t necessary.
Although he and Beth had never specifically spoken about human composting before we called, when Inverse asked him what he thought about his wife being composted once dead, he wholeheartedly agreed. Not only did he support her choice: He wants the same for himself.
“I want to do what’s simple and what’s sustainable,” David says, echoing his wife’s sentiments.
“We follow environmental issues very closely, it’s not a stretch for us.”
He explains that when it becomes a legal and viable thing to do in New York, they will include it in their wills.
“When I die, I believe my spirit will be released and my earthly remains should be returned to earth,” Beth says.
“Simple and logical.”