Soils are fertile ecosystems that contain living microorganisms, eroded ancient rock materials, and decayed organic matter. When soils on our planet are healthy, they help sustain all life on Earth from the tiniest organisms only visible through microscopes to humans and other animals who call countless different habitats home. Healthy soils help plants thrive, mitigate stormwater runoff, sequester carbon, improve farmer’s crop yields, cycle nutrients, and more. When soils are polluted and otherwise destroyed, these once dynamic ecosystems lose many of their beneficial properties and while we often think our impact on soil health is limited to actions we take in our daily lives, that’s not the case. Even in death we have the ability to either nourish or harm living soils.
In Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Place for the Urban Dead, Katrina Spade, Founder and CEO of Recompose, examines the alarming data related to the funeral-industrial-complex: “The annual tally of buried materials in U.S. cemeteries is more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid.” Spade goes on to explain that the combination of air-tight caskets and about three gallons of formaldehyde result in “a soup of putrefied toxic liquid” that “[pollutes] the very soil to which [we] owe [our] lives.” Spade’s company, Recompose, is working to address these and other issues related to death care practices that harm the planet and perpetuate narratives about death that prevent people from understanding the full nature of life on Earth. Death care practices that could benefit from composting.
At Recompose death care specialists participate in a process known as natural organic reduction, otherwise known as human composting. Phases one through five are detailed on their website as follows:
The Cycle Begins
“Natural organic reduction (NOR), also
known as human composting, is powered
by beneficial microbes that occur naturally
on our bodies and in the environment.
The Laying In
“Our staff lay the body in a cradle surrounded
by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. The
cradle is placed into a Recompose vessel
and covered with more plant material.”
“The body and plant material remain in the
vessel for 30 days. Microbes break everything
down on the molecular level, resulting in
the formation of a nutrient‑dense soil.”
“Each body creates one cubic yard of
soil amendment, which is removed from
the vessel and allowed to cure. Once
completed, it can be used to enrich
conservation land, forests, or gardens.”
Life After Death
“The soil created returns the nutrients
from our bodies to the natural
world. It restores forests, sequesters carbon, and nourishes new life.”
People who choose to have their body undergo this process have the option to donate their soil to Bells Mountain, a 700-acre nonprofit land trust in Washington. “The land’s caretakers use the soil donated by Recompose to support the continued revitalization of wetlands, riparian habitats, local plants, and vulnerable wildlife species,” and the process itself results in the removal of about .84 to 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Compared to the 28 gallons of gas needed for a single cremation, and the negative environmental impact of traditional burials, NOR is the alternative death care practice gift that keeps on giving.
NOR is currently only legal in two states but legislators in New York are working to make human composting an option. The proposed bill, A00382/S05535, “provides for the creation, operation, and duties of natural organic reduction facilities as cemetery corporations for the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” Despite pushback from the New York State Catholic Conference, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin told the Niagara Gazette that NOR is “cleaner and greener” than traditional burial practices and that it’s “in line with many religious practices.” Catholic leaders urge that it is “essential the body of a deceased person be treated with reverence and respect.” Not only does NOR prevent poisons from polluting the bodies of deceased persons, it also allows the organic matter of which bodies are composed to truly return to the Earth and nourish new life. When it comes to “reverence and respect for human remains,” a key consideration for Catholic critics of the proposed bill, a death care practice that honors natural cycles, encourages healing of the planet, and allows bodies to become one with the Earth without spreading toxins could be an environmentally and spiritually friendly option.
But the point of NOR isn’t just to add another “green” action to one’s to-do list. Too often, the burden of repairing structural and systemic issues is aimed at individuals, many of whom are chronically disenfranchised. Even the death care industry has a history of discrimination and disenfranchisement that calls the idea of death being the great equalizer into the question. In Greening Death, Suzanne Kelly explains that “before the 1930s, Chinese Americans were barred from becoming funeral directors, leaving their experiences of death, as well as their death customs, in the hands of white actors.” She goes on to add that “until 1968 it was legal for cemeteries to refuse to bury bodies on the basis of race.”
Now, the $15 billion death care industry has the opportunity to center equity, public health, and planetary healing. From educating people about the complex history of the industry to increasing access to ecology-focused burial options, the harmful elements of the funeral-industrial complex can be abolished. One composted human body at a time. Additionally, access to other alternatives to traditional burial can be increased with the help of information campaigns and advocacy for policy and legislation in death care management that offer people more options.
It’s time for society to stop treating cemeteries like landfills. Humans are part of natural cycles of life and death that can help us heal the planet instead of continuing to cause harm. With NOR humans can actually become worm food when they die, as all organic matter ultimately does, instead of source material for groundwater pollution. NOR gives people the option to help heal living soils instead of destroy them. Since we don’t just live on Earth but with Earth, the option to give back in this way allows us to really leave no trace. Only healthy soil.