Nate Fisher’s burial scene in the HBO series “Six Feet Under” was a watershed moment in the green-burial movement: It introduced the idea of human composting to a mainstream audience, says Mark Harris, author of a book about natural burials, in a blog post on the subject. “I’ve long believed that [the episode], which aired on August 21, 2005, did more to sell the idea to the greater public than any newspaper story, newscast or magazine piece at the time,” he writes.
Yet despite such a prominent cultural marker (not to mention the myriad environmental benefits), human composting is not yet legal in any U.S. state. Over the last few years, 17 states have legalized a process called alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation, where bodies are dissolved in a mix of water and lye. Alkaline hydrolysis is greener than regular cremation: While one single traditional cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile car trip, alkaline hydrolysis emits much lower rates of emissions and uses a quarter of the energy. But in most states, bodies must be buried, entombed, cremated or donated to science, which means you could be arrested for burying grandma beneath her favorite dogwood tree.
This is why a bill recently introduced to the Washington Legislature by state senator Jamie Pedersen is being watched very carefully by green burial enthusiasts. The bill — which seeks to expand the options for disposing of human remains after death, including the practice of composting human bodies — was passed in committee and may be up for a floor vote in the next few weeks, according to Chris West, Pedersen’s communications specialist.
As we’ve previously covered, green burials are becoming more popular in this country. In the U.S. in 2006, according to the Green Burial Council, there was only one council-approved provider of green burials; there are now more than 300 today, and that number is rising.
This makes sense for financial as well as environmental reasons. Traditional burials can easily cost upwards of $10,000, and embalming fluids leach toxins like formaldehyde into our soil and groundwater supplies. Space is also a major concern, especially in urban centers: in New York City, no new cemeteries have been established in over 50 years, so the cost of each individual plot is also rising.
While cremation is already viewed by many as a more environmentally friendly option than a casket-and-concrete vault, it requires an input of fossil fuels and results in the production of CO2, around “a metric ton per body,” according to Katrina Spade, whose Seattle-based public benefit corporation, Recompose, is at the forefront of the human composting movement. “Recomposition uses one-eighth the energy of cremation,” Spade says. It also saves money: Spade estimates each human composting would cost a mere $5,500.
“I started this work because I saw the funeral experience as something worth improving, and I’ve since had several deaths of loved ones really affirm that idea,” Spade says. “Decay and decomposition are amazing processes we are terrified of because they might seem icky and scary — your body aging, your food rotting — but without those processes, we would not be alive.”
If you’re a funeral traditionalist but also have our planet’s best interests at heart, the negative environmental impact of the rituals surrounding death in this country might be enough to change your mind. In the U.S., according to Grist, 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and 90,000 tons of steel are used every year for conventional burials. Cremation releases 250,000 tons of CO2 each year, the equivalent of burning nearly 30 million gallons of gasoline.
By contrast, bodies that are cremated via composting generate about a cubic yard of compost per person, Spade says, nourishing the soil with needed minerals and other nutrients. In 2018, a team at Washington State University, led by compost science expert Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, showed that human bodies could be safely and efficiently converted to “earthy organic material.” The study used six bodies that were donated to the university for science. Carpenter-Boggs and Spade are currently working on an Urban Death prototype they anticipate to complete by 2023.
While the “ick” factor might remain, it seems attitudes around human composting are changing. In 2014, green burials only made up about five percent of funerals, and there were about 40 certified green burial grounds in the U.S. But according to a 2017 National Funeral Director Association survey, 53.8 percent of respondents indicated an interest in exploring green funeral services, and 72 percent of cemeteries are reporting an increase in demand.
“The funeral industry is a $20 billion industry,” says Spade, who was awarded an Ashoka “changemaker” fellowship in 2018. “The idea that every person can ‘own’ a piece of land for eternity, in the form of a cemetery plot… is not a sustainable model, especially for cities with space constraints.”
Correction: A previous version of this article featured outdated pricing for Recompose’s services.