Human Compost or a Greener Way to Die

March 20, 2022

by Jan Goodwin, award-winning journalist and author.

I’ve always been horrified at the cost of funerals in the U.S., as much as $30,000 these days or more, running many families into debt, plus the damage to soil from embalming, and the metals involved in coffins that do not biodegrade over time. Then there is the lack of space in many cities globally. In NYC, a law now lets cemeteries reclaim empty plots that are owned by families who have not made contact in 75 years. In Singapore, graves can be used only for 15 years, after which the remains are cremated and the space is used for another burial. And today, in overcrowded Hong Kong, grave sites have become the most expensive real estate per square foot.

So when bio urns were developed a couple of years ago in which human ashes and tree seeds are buried in a biodegradable urn, I immediately had that written into my will. After I died, I would become a tree. I decided I’d like to be a gingko, one of the oldest living tree species in the world, that were here before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Gingko leaf fossils have been found dating back 200 million years. The tree is so ancient, the species is known as a ‘living fossil’.

And because I grew up in England before moving to the U.S. and have always loved the highest mountains in the world and have been fortunate to visit them; the Himalayas, the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, I decide half of my ashes would become a gingko tree in the UK, and the other half would be planted in the foothills of the Himalayas. But of course by being cremated and flown to two different countries, my carbon count would go up. So perhaps I should consider what Herland Forest is doing in the state of Washington. “We can convert cemeteries into forests,” Walter Patrick, the director of Herland Forest in Wahkiacus, WA, told SEEDS.

“The forest needs the elements that are in the human body–magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and all of those things in the body are desperately needed for the soil,” he explained. “If the trees don’t have magnesium, they can’t make chlorophyll, and if they don’t have chlorophyll, they can’t grow.”

He points out that all states permit some form of natural burial. “This is no different from what Jewish or Muslims do when you are buried in a simple shroud,” he says. There is no embalming, a process that stops the natural rate of decomposition.” Cremation also takes some 28 gallons of fuel to turn one person into ash. Not environmentally wise either. Yet in the U.S. currently, we now cremate half our dead. If the trend continues, that number will be 79.1 percent by 2035.

“This why we are doing enhanced natural burials at Herland Forest,” says Patrick. “We dig a grave, fill it with wood chips and the body, and use piping to get oxygen and water into the grave to allow biodegrading to go forward. This process is faster in the summer, slower in the winter. Then we plant a tree over the grave. The forest is doing very well. We have dogwood, crab apple, walnuts, chestnuts, even gingkoes. The forest is home to hawks, migratory songbirds, mule deer, coyote and more. With Herland Forest we are seeking to grow our understanding of the ancient cycle of life, death and renewal so that we can better honor it through our actions as stewards.

“This environmental impact resonates with a lot of people. And then there is also the beauty, and the idea that you will go on to do good after you die.”

What Herland Forest is doing is human composting, known as Natural Organic Reduction (NOR)–a method in which unembalmed remains are processed and turned into soil. The body is broken down with organic materials like wood chips and/or straw for several weeks inside of an enclosure until it becomes soil. This practice was first legalized in 2019 and came into effect in 2020 in Washington State and has now just been legalized in Colorado. States like Maine, Oregon, and California are also considering the eco-friendly afterlife alternative.

According to Popular Science Magazine, Recompose, a Seattle-based business, became the first full-service human-composting funeral home in the country early this year. The funeral home uses NOR to turn bodies into soil for family members to scatter or use to plant a memorial site for the deceased loved one. The funeral home uses a “vessel,” a steel cylinder that is 8 feet long and 4 feet tall. The metal container is then monitored by a computer and staff as the deceased decompose into soil with the help of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. The organic materials create an environment for microbes and microorganisms that help the decomposition process.

Patrick also pointed out that being composted makes it easier for people who want to be scattered on their land in a “return to the biosphere,” especially in states where people cannot be buried on their property. Turning those remains into soil allows loved ones to have the freedom to have a plant burial on the deceased person’s property–while supporting flora and fauna in their own backyard. The process is done with care for the deceased’s dignity as a person.”

Climate change and modern man is even affecting sky burials that take place in Tibet, Mongolia, parts of China, and among the Parsi in India. A body is placed on wooden structures for vultures to strip it down to the bones. The Parsis consider land and water to be sacred and they must not be “polluted” with a dead body. But even the vultures are dying out, as the Parsis discovered.

“The vultures have disappeared. At first, it was presumed that they disappeared due to change in the land use, and construction of tall buildings,” as Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society told the Al Jazeera news service. “But I think vultures declined mainly due to the prevalence of Diclofenac – a painkiller that had just come into use for humans, and then the Indian government also made this drug available for use in livestock, as well. Diclofenac is lethal to vultures. It does not matter from where they get it, from a dead Parsi or from a dead cow,” Rahmani says.

Today, there is not a single vulture in the entire Maharashtra state of which Mumbhai is the capital, according to Rahmani. Composting humans may be the answer there, too.

Photo credit: Recompose.