What to do with our dead is a question that has plagued humanity for all of its history. Modern Americans most often choose to bury or cremate their dead, but other options are available. An emerging option is human composting, a fairly new alternative to traditional methods of disposition that has gained attention in recent years.
A scientific process known as “natural organic reduction” or human composting makes it possible to turn human remains into compost. The process relies on the microbes already in the deceased person’s stomach, speeding up the natural decomposition process. During the human composting process the deceased’s remains are placed into a large steel cylinder (referred to as a vessel) with organic materials like wood chips and straw. The inside of the vessel is heated and oxygen is added to aid in the decomposition process. After some time, the bones are removed, broken down, and added back into the vessel. The body remains in the vessel upwards of a month. After, the soil that the body has become is removed from the vessel and allowed to cure for roughly another month. This all results in approximately one cubic yard of soil per body.
There are several different companies operating in the United States that offer human composting services, and each one has a slightly different method of performing the process. For example, Recompose puts wood chips, alfalfa, and straw into its vessels, while Earth Funeral uses mulch, woodchips, and wildflowers. Bodies at Earth Funeral remain in the vessel for 45 days, while at Return Home they are removed after 30 days. Unlike the others, Herland Forest places its vessels outside. Prices can vary, from $3000 at Herland Forest to $7000 at Recompose.
All of the aforementioned companies will return all or a portion of the soil to the family of the deceased. However, one cubic yard of soil can weigh hundreds of pounds, which is often too much for a family to take on. As a result, each company offers a designated natural location for any unwanted soil to be placed.
The soil produced by human composting can be used like any other soil but depending on the state, is subject to some additional regulations. For example, soil resulting from human composting is required to be tested for pathogens and heavy metals in Washington. In Colorado, it is illegal to sell the soil or to use it to grow food for human consumption.
Human composting was not available in the United States until very recently. Bills legalizing human composting have been passed in just five states: Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and California. Human composting is currently possible in the first three states, while the laws in Vermont and California will take effect in 2023 and 2027 respectively. A bill in New York has been passed by both houses of the State Legislature and now awaits the approval of Governor Kathy Hochul. Several other states have had human composting bills introduced in their legislatures in recent years, to mixed results.
New York and the rest of the United States should pass legislation legalizing human composting. First and foremost, it is greener than either cremation or burial. A single cremation requires 28 gallons of fuel and results in toxic chemicals being released into the air. It is estimated that one cremation produces an average of around 535 pounds of carbon dioxide. Total cremations in the United States account for around 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every single year. Traditional burial is not more environmentally friendly. In the United States, the process results in the use of 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete every year. 800,000 gallons of often toxic embalming fluids are used in this country annually, which can leach into the soil. And cemeteries require land, land that is not used for any other productive purpose.
In contrast, human composting produces carbon-sequestering soil that can be used to grow carbon-sequestering trees and other plants. Of course, a small amount of electricity is required for heating and aeration, but it requires no toxic chemicals, and vessels can be reused. In a country and a world that are facing an ever more dire climate crisis, policies that result in reductions in emissions should be pursued where ever possible. Human composting is an example of a policy that helps the environment without doing any significant harm to individuals or communities.
Human composting is a cost-effective alternative to traditional burial. In the United States, an average cremation costs between $4,000 and $7,000 while an average funeral with burial costs between $7,000 and $12,000. The current cost of human composting ranges from $3000 to $7000, making it comparable to cremation and cheaper than a burial. This cheaper alternative should be offered to consumers. Plus, the funeral industry is worth $20 billion, so human composting represents an opportunity to create new small businesses and jobs nationwide.
Human composting should be legalized in order to allow the law to conform with decedents’ wishes. The decision about what to do with one’s body after death is an intensely personal one. Barring necessary health and safety regulations, governments should try and allow people’s wishes regarding this matter to be followed as closely as possible. There is no public health concern associated with human composting. It harms no individual, and in fact, may be beneficial to our environment. The fact that is it not a traditional method of disposing of the dead is not justification for its illegality. Plus, a significant portion of people have considered greener alternatives to traditional burial, demonstrating that there is a demand not being met by the current funeral industry. Human composting should be legalized to provide the opportunity for Americans to take full advantage of if they wish.
Maura Pallitta is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She grew up in New Jersey, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied history and political science. She is an associate for Cornell Law School’s Journal of Law and Public Policy.
Suggested Citation: Maura Pallitta, Dust to Dust: Why We Should Legalize Human Composting, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Nov. 3, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/dust-to-dust-why-we-should-legalize-human-composting/.