California recently became the fifth US state to legalize human composting as an alternative to traditional burials and cremation.
While some of us have heard of the green burial movement which offers more environmentally friendly ways to hold funerals and burials, not everyone is familiar with human composting (also known as reduction natural organic).
What is that? And where in the United States, other than California, is it legal? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.
What is human composting?
Composting – or decomposition – occurs, as most know, when organic materials are placed directly into the earth and allowed to biodegrade.
However, when people talk about “human composting,” they’re usually referring to above-ground decomposition or recomposition — a specific process for turning human remains into soil.
Stateline (a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts) writes:
“The process involves placing the human remains in a steel box with biodegradable materials, which help the body to break down naturally. This produces soil, which is given to family members, who can spread it or use it to grow plants.
This process takes six to eight weeks.
The benefits of human composting
The public seems receptive to alternative funeral practices. The National Funeral Directors Association’s (NFDA) 2022 Consumer Awareness and Preference Report notes that 60.5% of Americans surveyed said they would be “interested in exploring ‘green’ funeral options because their potential environmental benefits, cost savings or for other reasons.”
Cremating a single human body sends about 190 kilograms (418 pounds) of carbon dioxide into the air — like driving a car 470 miles, according to Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society.
Burials have their own problems, placing millions of gallons of embalming liquid in the ground each year and using 47,000 m3 (about 1.7 million cubic feet) of wood for coffins each year, the publication says.
Another benefit of composting is that it gives those who choose it (and their grieving families and friends) the opportunity to express and act on their values. Additionally, it provides an opportunity to feel part of the dying process — something both heartbreaking and beautiful, says Recompose, a green funeral home in Seattle.
How much does human composting cost?
When it comes to costs, human composting appears about on par with conventional funeral services:
- Redialing, for example, costs $7,000 (ceremony not included);
- The median cost of a funeral with inhumation in 2021 was $7,848, according to the NFDA.
- The median price for a funeral with cremation was $6,971.
In the fall of 2022, California became the fifth state to legalize human composting, with the law slated to take effect in 2027. Here are all the states that have passed laws allowing the practice.
The law: Assembly Bill 351
When it takes effect: 2027
In September 2022, California became the fifth state to approve the use of human composting.
Next, perhaps, New York, reports Axios. Supporters are pushing for their state to be the sixth in the nation to allow human composting.
The law: House Bill 244 (Bill 169)
When it takes effect: 2023
The governor of Vermont signed the state’s human composting bill into law in June 2022.
Besides composting, the bill covers another green landfill alternative: alkaline hydrolysis. This option uses less energy than cremation but more than human composting.
The Sierra Club describes the process:
“The body is placed in a stainless steel vessel filled with 95% water and 5% alkali (i.e. lye) which is then pressurized and heated to 300°F. After three hours , all that’s left is a fragile skeleton that can be powdered and a liquid safe enough to dump into a municipal waste system.
The law: Senate Bill 21-006
When it took effect: 2021
In March 2022, proponents of human composting in Colorado celebrated the spreading of soil from composted human remains on a field. It was a first, after the state legalized the process in 2021.
If you’re concerned about where the soil from composted human remains might end up, “There are strict laws preventing the soil from being used to grow food that people might eat,” according to Houston’s KHOU-11 TV. .
The law: House Bill 2574
When it took effect: 2022
A question-and-answer session on the Oregon Legislature website addresses some concerns about human composting, including fears that it could release pharmaceuticals or heavy metals into the soil.
Washington State University and Western Carolina University have studied the process, the site says. WSU found that heavy metals (such as cadmium, arsenic, copper, lead, zinc, and mercury) remained well below EPA limits. And 95% of prescription drugs tracked by researchers were broken down into compost.
The law: Senate Bill 5001
When it took effect: 2020
Washington was the first state to allow human composting.
Entrepreneur Katrina Spade came up with the idea for human composting after learning that farmers used a similar process to dispose of animal remains, Smithsonian reported in 2019, when Washington state passed its law.
Spade founded Recompose, pioneering a movement that has changed laws in five states so far. Recompose’s “history” provides a timeline.