Washington became the first state to legalize the composting of human remains (May 22, 2019, CNN). In “human composting,” the body remains are mixed with organic matter and allowed to break down for about 3-7 weeks.
In keeping up with the times, I used to say that I did not wish for a lonely burial but preferred cremation (California – 61.5%; US – 53.1%; South Korea – 81.6%). The family could keep some ash and throw the rest onto the mountains and into the valleys, rivers, and ocean.
But in the age of man-induced climate change, composting presents a more environmentally sound idea. Who knows. Perhaps it could help us avoid a Soylent Green future wracked by resource depletion, social breakdown, and climate change.
Consider these benefits:
- The byproduct is a nutrient-rich soil readily recyclable into agricultural and pastoral lands, instantly increasing their productivity. The byproduct of cremation is ash which has less nutrients.
- Cemetaries permanently restricts land use – squeezing out the living. There are about eight billion people on earth. Can we build cemeteries forever?
- Burials also use a lot of resources to produce coffins, bury them, and maintain the grounds. But a hundred years later, no one will remember you.
- Composting is more cost-effective than both cremation or burial which use a lot of fossile fuel. By contrast, the decomposting process may be a net generator of energy with only positive byproducts.
- Finally, you cannot ignore the spiritual dimension. Consuming the food we grow using the compost from the remains of our loved ones is sure to create a new spiritual traditions and connections.
Now, if I died while hiking, I would not mind being left to compost on the spot after the animals had their fill – well, perhaps not on the exact spot, in the open, and in people’s way.
But just like the large quantity of trash and waste we already pollute, dumping compost in mass quantities in nature is just as polluting. Building trails and traversing over it should be enough privilege. We should not demand more.
Maybe the one-off family or other private gardens are fine if properly permitted. But agricultural and pastoral lands where we grow our food would seem to be the most logical depository.
Anyway, as it becomes widely accepted, new regulations would allay superstitions, moral inhibitions, religious controversies, and environmental concerns.
DIY composting for humans is probably out of the question (and illegal) but it appears widely practiced among livestock farmers…
Photo: By Charles Park, Cows grazing freely on the hills of the Dolomites at Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park, Italy, July 2019.