Reviews |  If you want to give something back to nature, give your body

Reviews | If you want to give something back to nature, give your body

By Caitlin Doughty

Graphics by Taylor Maggiacomo

Caitlin Doughty is an undertaker and author of three books on death and the funeral industry. She founded The Order of the Good Death, a non-profit organization that promotes end-of-life alternatives.

Eight years ago, panting heavily in the humid summer air, I hauled a pair of orange work buckets filled with woodchips up a leafy hillside in rural North Carolina. Although these are ordinary wood shavings, the pilot study I had come to observe planned to make an extraordinary use of them: to compost a dead human being in the ground.

The deceased gentleman I saw that day, lying on the forest floor under a dappled sun, had donated his body to science in order to be useful to society after his death. Now, that donation and the Western Carolina University Forensic Osteology Research Station study has paid off. Thanks to human composting technology, our dead have the chance to become nutrient-rich soil that can be used to plant trees and regrow forests.

To date, five states – Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado and most recently California – have legalized or set a date to legalize human composting as a means of afterlife disposal. In New York, the bill passed both the Assembly and the Senate. It now awaits Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature.

Human composting – or, as it is sometimes called, natural organic reduction – fulfills the desire of many people to nourish the earth after they die. It owes much of its current form to Katrina Spade, a Washington-based designer and entrepreneur who told me her goal is to see “composting overtake cremation as the default American deathcare within the next two decades”.

In 2015, as an architecture student, Ms. Spade started a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project, planning to walk through Brooklyn’s brownstones and stumble upon a municipal human composting facility. Here, passers-by would reflect on mortality and the cycle of life, feeling a sense of connection to the land, past and future – the way urban cemeteries like Green-Wood were designed to rest in death. a harmonious part of city life.

The details vary, but human composting generally works like this:

This special soil can then be scattered in a cemetery, placed in a grave, or given to the family to use as they see fit. Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University and a leader in human remains law, said that in the New York bill, the end product is defined as soil, with no restrictions on use.

After working for years in the American funeral industry and founding a non-profit organization to promote the acceptance and legalization of new green funeral options, I felt the need to warn Ms. Spade that with death , change comes slowly. The new composting process would have to be approved state by state, one by one.

The Urban Death Project is now closed. In her place, Ms. Spade founded Recompose, a new for-profit company designed to bring human composting to the public. (She and I are friends and have advised each other for years, but have never had a financial relationship. I have no stake in Recompose or any other human composting business.) The business is operational in Washington, alongside several other new companies like Return Home, Earth Funeral, and The Natural Funeral, which serve other states where human composting is legal.

A demonstration of what a service might look like before the composting process begins.

Will Matsuda for The New York Times

There are environmental and financial reasons why this process makes sense for New York. In town, we lack space for burials. Plots in New York generally cost between $4,500 and $19,000, although some plots in Manhattan can cost up to $1 million. This price does not include the additional tens of thousands of dollars it typically costs when a funeral home prepares and transports a body for burial.

The usual way to save on these costs is cremation, which can be available in the $2,500 range. But cremation has drawbacks. The cremation process uses as much fossil fuel per body as a 500 mile car trip. And releases harmful air pollutants like dioxins, mercury and fine particulate matter into surrounding neighborhoods. Human composting, according to Recompose’s calculations, uses only an eighth of that energy, and the total price drops between cremation and conventional burial to around $7,000. This process also saves about a ton of CO2 for each person composted, compared to conventional burial or cremation.

Human composting is a less carbon-intensive funeral alternative

Mean net CO2 emissions

Burial with a concrete vault

Grave with concrete vault and monument

Burial with a concrete vault

Grave with concrete vault and monument

Sources: Estimates of burials and crematoria from Funeral Services – City of Paris; estimate of human composting from an analysis commissioned by Recompose.

Alongside these practical reasons for re-examining how we die, there are emotional reasons. We humans value our relationship with the planet we live on. It is natural to want to give something back, and in a profound way, to return to the elements – to give back our atoms to nature.

There are still some naysayers to this future: The New York State Catholic Conference has said the process “is more suitable for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.” I hope that these resistance fighters will understand the deep meaning that this new form of rest gives to the dying and their families. The process was so important to Brooklynite Michelle Miller that when her mother died, Michelle had her body transported to Seattle to be composted. “It was moving, calm and meaningful,” she said. After the process, “members of my family called to say that the experience was healing them in ways they hadn’t expected.”

A range of human composting containers from Recompose.

Will Matsuda for The New York Times

The passage between the room where the services take place and the room where the composting takes place.

Will Matsuda for The New York Times

Sean Ovens was an officer with the Tacoma, Washington Police Department and an instructor at the local police academy. After killing herself in July, her mother, Roberta Vollendorff, had her body composted at Return Home and took the soil from her remains to a Sitka spruce tree on her property. “Not everyone has as much land as I do, but almost everyone has plants they can go to,” she said, adding, “I can walk to the tree I can go to. have walked all these years and my son is there. It is so heartwarming.

There are also those who fear their own eventual decline. It has been a century since the dead in America have regularly returned to the organic life cycle. The American funeral industry promoted the idea that the “worthy” corpse should be preserved by formaldehyde embalming, placed in a sealed casket, and lowered into a heavy concrete vault below ground. It’s a valid choice, but it treats the dead as something to be vigilantly guarded against. Human composting reframes the corpse: not something to be protected from nature and the elements, but something destined to return to it. This requires confronting the reality of climate change and our place in the cycle of life, no small existential matter.

Our society continues to seek new rituals and new ways to affirm that we are all worthy in our mortality, that dust will be dust. We need to respect each other’s choices for their deaths and realize that no group can define for others what a dignified death might look like.

Morgan Yarborough, licensed funeral director at Recompose, walks through the woods of Bells Mountain, Wash., where the company first planted saplings with soil created through human composting.

Will Matsuda for The New York Times

Six years after hauling those wood chips through the North Carolina forest, I visited another forest in southern Washington. After decades of depletion by logging, this forest had been taken over by a conservation organization with a special mission. A golf cart took me along a clearing trail to a dark brown compost field. The soil of this compost had once been the bodies of 28 different humans: now they were all one, part of the woods around them. These 28 people have chosen to donate their soil to help regrow native trees and eventually provide shade to a salmon spawning stream.

The soil of this field testifies to a group of pioneers, who wished, as a last gesture, to help repair some of the damage that we have caused to nature. It’s a move everyone in the country should have the legal choice to make, and many in New York would love the opportunity to do so. If Governor Hochul signs the bill, New Yorkers will have the ability to use the soil of their loved ones in any way they deem meaningful: scatter, plant a tree, bring to a cemetery, fertilize a garden, or make a donation to a conservation organization. .

At Recompose in Seattle, Ms. Spade has composted the bodies of more than 200 people. Other states are following suit, with new practitioners springing up to bring the service to their communities. There is a broad desire in America to expand our death care choices and align them with our hopes and dreams for a healthy planet. New York can light the way.

Saplings planted with soil from human composting will grow to shade a creek on Bells Mountain, Washington, helping restore salmon habitat to previously logged land.

Will Matsuda for The New York Times

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