The thought of dying is freaky enough—never mind what’s going to happen to our once inhabited bodies after the breath and pulse cease to move within us. We bury the dead for a number of reasons, a public health service among them. But it’s also for the living, so that we have a place to go and commune with our loved ones, even though they’ve decomposed into strangers made of bone dust and memories. But modern burial practices use up a lot of land and resources, conventional burials incorporate environmental toxins. And some experts suggest it’s time to move in a new direction: human composting.
Already, a number of green burial services exist—your dead body could be buried under trees, for example. And if Katrina Spade, a 37-year-old Seattle resident with a degree in architecture, has anything to say about it, we’ll soon see a lot more human composting, which may be the greenest burial option of all.
“Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds,” Ms. Spade, who founded the Urban Death Project, told the New York Times. But “our bodies have nutrients. What if we Scientists agree that human beings can be composted. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”
The procedure is already being employed for dealing with a number of deceased livestock animals. According to the Times, “at least a third of Washington State’s dairy farms, compost the bodies of dead livestock.” And roadkill animals in some states are also being used as compost.
How does composting a body work, exactly? “The process is surprisingly simple,” explains the Times. “Place nitrogen-rich material, like dead animals, inside a mound of carbon-rich material, like wood chips and sawdust, adding moisture or extra nitrogen and making other adjustments as needed. Microbial activity will start the pile cooking.”
Just like with all composting, bacteria begin to release enzymes that can break down the (human) tissue, which over time, becomes so broken down that it easily binds to carbon-rich molecules, which creates the soil-like compost. “Temperatures reach around 140 degrees, often higher, and the heat kills common pathogens,” explains the Times. “Done correctly, there should be no smell. Bones also compost, though they take longer than tissue.”
But if that sounds rather unceremonious, Spade says the Urban Death facility, which she hopes to open in Seattle, would include a ceremonial aspect that allows loved ones to “bury” their deceased in the facility. Several weeks after the composting has occurred, loved ones could also collect some of the compost for their own personal use, perhaps to plant a tree or garden in the deceased’s honor.
Cremation, which also renders bodies into an unrecognizable dust, is environmentally damaging. But human composting achieves virtually the same result in an environmentally beneficial way, and making better use of the body’s inherent nutrients. And it’s not just the benefit to the environment and the earth. Spade says there’s a spiritual benefit too that brings the death cycle full circle back into earth in a natural way, reports the Times ,“connecting death to the cycle of nature will help people face their own mortality and bring comfort to the bereaved.”
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Grave image via Shutterstock