Human compost offers eco-friendly way to go

Recompose: The US company will open a centre in 2021 to turn 800 humans a year into soil. © Alamy

Can human composting save the planet? As we try to live more ecologically, new funeral methods are changing our attitudes about death and creating green alternatives to burial and cremation.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens to our body after we die. We are usually buried or cremated. But if you live in the US state of Washington, there’s now a third option: composting.

This is the idea behind Recompose, a company planning to convert “human remains to soil” in a purpose-built centre to open next year.

The deceased are placed in rotating containers with woodchips, leaves, and straw. Over six weeks, microbes decompose the body into two wheelbarrows of compost. This is returned to their loved ones, who can scatter it like ashes, or use it in their garden.

But why would you want to throw your family on the compost heap?

Conventional funeral practices are harming the environment, says Sandy Sullivan of the UK-based, eco-funeral company, Resomation.

The energy burnt and carbon dioxide released in cremation adds to our carbon footprint, accelerating the climate crisis. Burials are just as bad, filling up the ground with “indestructible” sealed coffins, leaking poisonous embalming fluids into the earth.

In response, many choose “green burials” using biodegradable coffins (without embalming), in meadows and woodlands. But this can be difficult if you live in a city, where the cemeteries are full and burial sites more expensive. No wonder the majority of people in the US and UK now choose to be cremated.

Another option is “water cremation”, dissolving the body in potassium hydroxide and grinding the bones into a powder. But if this is making you queasy, you’re not alone. In Washington, Catholics complain that these green funerals are “disgusting and undignified” and fail “to show enough respect for the body of the deceased”.

But Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company says it is a matter of perspective and what we’re used to.

After all, with cremation, “your grandma is basically going up a chimney and then coming out as particles of soot and carbon and everybody is inhaling them”. Which doesn’t sound very dignified.

And Nora Menkin of the People’s Memorial Association says composting has its own dignity. “It gives meaning and use to what happens to our bodies after death.”

So, could green funerals save the planet?

It’s your funeral

Let’s keep some perspective, argue the critics. The carbon footprint of a cremation is only 400kg – compared to 14,000kg, the annual average footprint for a living, breathing European. So, the best way to save the planet is to take fewer flights and eat less meat whilst we’re still alive. Besides, for the spiritual, there is more to traditional practices than their financial and environmental costs.

Others say that a green burial can be just as spiritual and dignified as conventional funerals. What could be more beautiful than for your body to return to the soil and create and feed new life? The environmental impact may be small, but it is about a wider change in perspective in our relationship to the world. Do we really want our last act on Earth to be to pollute the air, or poison the ground?

You Decide

  1. Does it matter what happens to your body after you die?
  2. If cremation damages the environment, should governments ban it?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to get people to consider composting as a respectful and environmentally-friendly alternative.
  2. Convincing people to compost their relatives is not going to be easy! Imagine you are setting up a human composting centre in your neighbourhood, and write a letter to the community explaining why. Be persuasive.

Some People Say...

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Woody Allen, American director, actor and comedian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Funerals have an environmental cost. One cremation releases 400kg of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of a return flight from London to Athens. UK cremations alone produce 1.34 tonnes of mercury from tooth fillings, which is harmful if it enters the food chain. Burying the dead has its own problems, with three gallons of toxic embalming fluid used in each burial. In contrast, composting requires an eighth of the energy of cremation and creates soil that can be safely put in the ground.
What do we not know?
Currently, human composting is only licensed in a few parts of the US and Canada, and the US centre will not open until 2021. So we do not know how many people will jump at the chance to be turned into soil. The disposal of human remains is tightly regulated in most countries, and authorities will need to be convinced that the compost is safe. In 2017, a UK water company shut down a “water cremation” site, citing these concerns.

Word Watch

Cremated
The ritual burning of human remains. In some religions, such as Hinduism, cremation is required.
Composting
The decomposition of organic matter, usually kitchen and garden waste.
Microbes
Microorganisms, such as bacteria, that feed on organic matter and assist the process of decomposition.
Carbon footprint
A measurement of the total amount of greenhouse gas emitted by an individual or an activity.
Embalming fluids
Chemicals, such as formaldehyde, used to preserve the body and prevent decomposition.
Potassium hydroxide
Also called “caustic potash”. It is used in industry and is highly corrosive.
Catholics
Catholics believe the body is resurrected after death and, therefore, favour burial over cremation.
Undignified
Lacking respect. All human funeral rituals emphasise respect for the dead, something that separated us from other animals.

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