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In a ‘return to nature’, California legalizes human composting for environmental benefits

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Californians will soon have a new end-of-life burial option: humane composting.

government Gavin Newsom signed a bill Sunday that creates a state regulatory process for “natural organic reduction” or the transformation of human remains into soil. The law will come into force in 2027.

California is the fifth state to legalize human composting, after Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Vermont. Proponents say the process is a more environmentally friendly option than coffin burials and cremation, and despite the seemingly novel burial method, experts say it’s no different from traditional practices in many cultures of returning a body to the ground.

What is human composting and how does it work?

The human composting process varies slightly by funeral home, but typically a person’s body after death is placed in an insulated container filled with organic material to aid in the decomposition process.

The Natural Funeral, the only funeral home in Colorado to offer in-house human composting, uses a 7-foot-long insulated wooden box filled with wood chips and straw. It has two large spool wheels at each end, allowing it to roll along the ground and providing the necessary oxygenation, agitation, and absorption for a compostable body.

After about three months, the container is opened and the soil is filtered for medical devices and large bones. The remaining bones are pulverized and returned to the bin for another three months of composting. Teeth are extracted to prevent mercury contamination in the fillings.

Recompose, a Seattle-based human composting company that is expanding in Colorado, uses a similar process: The company collaborated with Washington State University in 2018, setting up a pilot project with human donors to make sure the process human composting was safe and effective.

The container must reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 continuous hours to kill any bacteria and pathogens. The high temperature occurs naturally during the decomposition of the body in a closed box.

The entire human composting process usually takes several months. After the body is fully composted, family members can choose to take the dirt home or have the funeral home return it to the dirt.

High environmental price for typical funeral arrangements

Historically, most Americans have had to choose between two end-of-life options: casket burials and cremations.

But caskets can be expensive and both options have detrimental environmental impacts, said Kristina Spade, founder and executive director of Recompose, which argued for the California bill.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the national average cost of an adult funeral with wake and burial is about $7,800; the casket itself averages $2,500. Average cremation prices hover around $7,000, the same price Recompose charges.

Greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and transporting a standard casket and tombstone are equivalent to the carbon footprint of a car traveling nearly 2,500 miles, according to research by the City of Paris Funeral Services in 2017. Cremation produces a carbon footprint equivalent to that of a car traveling nearly 700 miles and releases pollutants into the air, such as nitrogen dioxide and mercury, the research found.

“Human composting avoids those harmful impacts and also, by sequestering carbon in the soil during the process, has a positive benefit for the planet,” Spade said. In all, about a metric ton of carbon is saved by choosing human composting over other options, he said.

A shift to green burials

More people are turning away from typical burial methods, according to data from the National Association of Funeral Directors. Cremation recently overtook casket burials as the most popular option for final disposition: It was used in 57.5% of deaths in 2021, versus a burial rate of 36.6%, the association said. .

And a 2022 report from the association says that more than 60% of people would be interested in exploring “green” funeral options because of their potential environmental benefits, cost savings, or for some other reason — an increase of 5% from 2021. And more than half of the survey respondents said they attended a funeral in a non-traditional location.

David Heckel, who helps families plan ahead for end-of-life arrangements at Natural Funeral in Colorado, said most people who choose humane composting do so for the protection of the environment.

“Most of the people who come to us who have had a death in their family and choose this, they do so because their lived values ​​of environmentalism and care for the earth are important to them,” Heckel said. “So they’re choosing this as a way to give back to the earth and be more environmentally friendly.”

The funeral home has started more than 30 composting processes since it became legal in Colorado a year ago, and Heckel said he’s seen more and more people interested in the option.

He likened the process, which takes several months, to a “long goodbye.”

“It makes the transition to life without a loved one a little more gradual and maybe a little easier for some people in that regard,” Heckel said. “Because you know there’s still something else to come when the ground is ready, maybe.”

A new method with traditional roots

While humane composting may be morally aligned with environmentalists, the new method doesn’t reflect everyone’s values. The California Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic church, opposed the California bill, denouncing it as an undignified way of treating the body.

The process, the conference wrote, “reduces the human body to a mere disposable item. The practice of respectfully burying bodies or honoring the ashes of the deceased ties in with the virtually universal norm of reverence and care for the deceased.”

But despite recently being legalized, the concept of humane composting is not new, and the practice of returning a body to the earth after death is a long-standing tradition in many cultures.

Traditional Jewish law says that a body must be returned to the earth as soon as possible. Embalming is not allowed and the body is buried in a coffin made entirely of wood, with holes drilled in the bottom to speed up the decomposition process. And Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where a human corpse is placed on top of a mountain to decompose or be eaten by animals.

“A lot of people like the idea of ​​going back to nature,” said Jillian Tullis, a communication professor at the University of San Diego who studies death and dying. “So in a way, if you want to call something traditional, come back down to earth, it doesn’t get more traditional than that.”

More than 1,000 people have signed up in advance to receive compost when they die through Recompose, Spade said. The company plans to expand to California soon.

“I think for a lot of people, it struck a chord that suddenly brought meaning back to end-of-life and the dying care process,” Spade said. “The idea of ​​being able to grow a tree with the person you love so much, the idea of ​​being able to return to nature after your death and somehow reconnect with the natural ecosystem, that attracts people, and that’s why we’re seeing an increase in interest in new options.

Ashes to ashes, dust to…compost? An eco-friendly burial in just 4 weeks

(c) 2022 USA today. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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