Editorial: Composting of human remains an idea to consider

  • In this April 19 file photo, Katrina Spade, a UMass graduate and founder of Recompose, a company that hopes to use composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains, poses for a photo in a cemetery in Seattle. AP photo

Published: 6/10/2019 8:00:19 PM

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return,” the Book of Genesis says.

But what if instead of dust, your remains were composted into dirt?

That’s now possible thanks in part to the ​​​​​​work of University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate Katrina Spade. Her research at UMass and later with her startup, Recompose, pioneered a method that turns a human body into soil through composting. And in Washington state, where Recompose is based, the practice, which Spade calls “natural organic reduction,” became legal in late May.

In Washington, loved ones can now keep the soil made from the departed and spread it like one does with cremated remains, or even use it in a garden. The soil would be, “Something that you can go grow a tree with and have sort of this ritual around that feels meaningful,” Spade told CityLab, an online news site produced by The Atlantic magazine.

In human composting, bodies are placed in steel containers with materials like wood chips and straw, and microbes break down the remains in about a month. The process doesn’t include the waste involved in caskets, the use of formaldehyde in embalming, the cost of a cemetery plot or the large amount of carbon dioxide created during cremation.

The practice is something Massachusetts should consider pursuing. Much like green or natural burials, which are legal in the Bay State, human composting will likely appeal to residents who are looking for a “final rest” that minimizes the environmental impact of death.

Cremation releases more than 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide every year in the United States. With traditional interment, “we bury 30 million board-feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and millions of gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid,” according to Spade’s Urban Death Project.

This is a tremendous burden on the environment and resources, at a time when global warming and the effects of climate change are approaching the point of no return and urban land space is at a premium.

There is, of course, the “ick” factor. One Gazette letter writer, Stephen Arons, compared human composting to the 1973 sci-fi film ”Soylent Green,” in which — spoiler alert — the food most people consume is reprocessed human corpses.

But there’s evidence that human composting is perfectly safe, and it goes without saying that no one is going to eat the soil that it produces. In a trial at Western Carolina University and Washington State University, the six human bodies that were composted using Spade’s methods produced a soil that met, and at some points exceeded, state and federal safety standards for metals and pathogens, the Seattle Times reported.

“It was beautiful, compost-like material I would have been happy to take home and use in the gardens,” Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a WSU soil science professor who worked on the project, told The Seattle Times.

Human composting could be cheaper than traditional burial or cremation. The median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial was $7,360 in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, while a funeral with a viewing and cremation was $6,260. Early estimates of human composting indicate the process would cost at least $5,000, The New York Times reported.

Massachusetts allows green burial, which generally means a body is interred in the ground without embalming fluid and in a decomposable coffin or shroud.

Although Green Burial Massachusetts lists only 21 cemeteries that permit the practice in its database, interest in the practice is growing. In a 2017 National Funeral Directors Association survey, nearly 54 percent of respondents said they were “interested in exploring green memorialization options to reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals.”

While places for green burials are relatively scarce, Massachusetts could make space for environmentally-friendly burials by legalizing human composting.

We all return to the ground, eventually. Human composting could ensure we do so in a way that enriches the earth, giving people another way to take the idea of “dust to dust” as literal as the Book of Genesis says.


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