If you’re concerned about the environment, consider composting when you die

Will you be buried or cremated when you die?

If you feel like me, the answer is no. I shudder at the thought of my body being burned to temperatures over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or pumped with toxic chemicals and spending the rest of eternity in a shrinking box 6 feet underground.

So here’s another question: How would you feel about reducing your body to compost and planting a tree, growing flowers, or repairing degraded forest soil?

Human composting doesn’t mean you’re tossing potato peelings, crushed eggshells and coffee grounds into a bin. Rather, you’ll be placed in a metal or wooden container covered with organic matter such as wood chips, alfalfa and hay, and then slowly reduced into nutrient-rich soil. The process can take anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on the method used.

I don’t know about you, but I like the sound of it (at least compared to those two options).

“I never felt like I had an option that worked for me until now,” said Assemblymember Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens). He authored a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month to legalize human composting in California.

California has become the fifth state to allow this method of body disposal, commonly known by the more scientific-sounding name “natural biodegradation.” Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have legalized the practice, and several other states have legislation pending.

California’s law takes effect in 2027, giving regulators time to establish rules that will govern human composting in the state.

But it’s never too early to start planning for your death.

Heather Anderson, a 68-year-old counselor and former hospice nurse in Seattle, says she already chooses to compost when she dies because it’s much easier on the environment than burial or cremation.

“We’re actually enhancing the world instead of taking away from it,” she says And his decision has a spiritual dimension, he says, as he “goes back to being part of the whole cycle of life.”

Andersen, who is in good health, bought a prepaid composting plan from Recompose, a Seattle-based green funeral home whose founder, Katrina Spade, is widely seen as a pioneer of natural organic decomposition for humans.

A photo shows a close-up of a composting bin filled with mulch and surrounded by green potted plants.
California is the fifth state to legalize human composting, since Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last month.(recompose)

A naturally decomposed human body can yield anywhere from 250 to 1,000 pounds of soil depending on the method used and the type and amount of organic matter mixed with the body. That’s enough to fill several wheelbarrows or the bed of a pickup. When the process is complete, many families take a small box of soil and donate the rest to a conservation project or flower farm.

Of course, composting after death isn’t for everyone. For example, the California Catholic Conference objected to the new law. The procedures involved, it said in a statement, “reduce the human body to a disposable product, and we should instead seek alternatives that maintain respect for both our natural world and the dignity of the deceased.”

People who choose to compost their bodies are usually motivated by environmental concerns.

With natural biodegradation, “what we’re really doing is taking everything that’s alive in the human body after humans leave it and turning it into something that can actually nurture the planet,” says Santa’s Holly Blue Hawkins. Cruz County, whose Last Respects Consulting provides death planning services.

After death, the human body retains nutrients and minerals for plants, including carbon, calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Traditional burials cause many problems. Formaldehyde in the liquid puts funeral workers at risk of problems such as irregular heartbeats, dangerous fluid build-up in the lungs and, over time, cancer. Furthermore, toxic substances from embalming fluid can leach into the soil.

Not to mention that there isn’t enough land in cemeteries to hold everyone’s own plot indefinitely into the future.

Cremation, on the other hand, emits numerous pollutants that are harmful to humans, as well as millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. And the percentage of people choosing cremation is growing rapidly, primarily because it’s cheaper than burial. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation is projected to account for 59% of body disposals this year and 79% by 2040. About 3 million Americans die each year, many of which are cremated.

Human composting has only emerged as an alternative to burial and cremation.

Since Recompose opened in December 2020, the company has composted less than 200 bodies. “Obviously, that’s a tiny fraction of the people who die in Washington state,” Spade said. But 1,200 customers prepaid for Natural Organic Reduction, which he believes is a sign of its growing appeal.

Many funeral entrepreneurs see human composting as a significant business opportunity in the $20 billion industry.

“Our owners are discussing expanding across the country as more states legalize it,” said David Heckel, advance planning consultant for Natural Funerals in Lafayette, Colorado.

In one photo Micah Truman stands on a bed of hay next to a container decorated with flowers and compostable memorials.
Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, a green funeral home in Auburn, Washington, shows a container used for human composting.(Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

Return Home, a green funeral home in Auburn, Washington, encourages website visitors to “join the #idratherbecompost movement” and fill out a form asking their state lawmakers to legalize human composting.

Dying is not cheap and composting is no exception. Natural organic waste costs anywhere from $3,000 to just under $8,000, depending on which company you choose. Companies usually offer on-site events for an additional charge. That compares to the average funeral cost of just under $7,000 for a cremation and just over $9,400 for a traditional burial with a casket and vault.

Recompose in Auburn, Washington, Home Return, The Natural Funerals and Earth Funerals all say they plan to set up shop in California after the new law takes effect. But Californians who want to return to the earth as compost don’t have to wait until 2027.

All of these companies offer prepaid plans and, for an additional fee, will arrange transportation to their out-of-state facilities if you or a loved one dies before working in California — or if you live in a state where natural biodegradation is not legal. Will send a small box of compost.

Another option is Harland Forest, a nonprofit cemetery in rural Washington, which charges $3,000. It has no plans to expand into California but accepts bodies from other states for an additional fee for transportation.

Call around and compare prices and procedures. See what kind of vibe you get.

If the idea of ​​human composting leaves you cold, for religious, personal or family reasons, don’t worry. No one is forcing you to grow a tree. “I’m not taking anything away,” Garcia said. “I’m just expanding the options we have.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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