December 5, 2022

"Human composting — or, as it’s sometimes referred to, natural organic reduction — fulfills many people’s desire to nurture the earth after dying."

"It owes much of its present form to Katrina Spade, a Washington-based designer and entrepreneur who told me that her goal is to see 'composting overtake cremation as the default American deathcare in the next couple of decades.' In 2015, as an architecture student, Ms. Spade launched a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project, envisioning strolling past the brownstones of Brooklyn and coming upon a municipal human composting facility. Here, passersby would reflect on mortality and the cycle of life, feeling a sense of connection to the earth, past and future — the way urban cemeteries like Green-Wood were designed to make repose in death a harmonious part of city life..."

From "If You Want to Give Something Back to Nature, Give Your Body" by Caitlin Doughty (NYT).

But we're told the New York State Catholic Conference has said this process “is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.”  

What's the process? It's described in detail and with graphics (and it strikes me as unnecessarily above-ground and complicated). There's "a cylindrical vessel" (which the author likens to a Japanese capsule hotel!). The body, wrapped in a shroud, is put in there with wood chips, sawdust, and alfalfa, and "other meaningful organic materials" as people see fit. Flowers, presumably, but what else? Favorite foods? Dead pets? It's sealed up for 6 to 8 weeks and everything but the bones breaks down. The bones are ground up in a cremulator and mixed back into "the soil," which is left to dry out. Finally, you have something like one cubic yard of soil. I looked it up, and I think that might be one ton of soil. 

Now you somehow give this back to nature. Where?! How??!

Just do a green burial. It's the same idea of letting the body decompose, but you bury the shrouded body at the beginning and you never dig it up and never grind the bones. You never have the "Japanese capsule hotel" phase.

Yes, you are sacrificing the in-town building that induces passersby to "reflect on mortality and the cycle of life," but, come on, the city is already perfectly suited to making you think about dying often enough. It's sufficiently evocative of death already — the cars always seem ready to run you down, you descend into the subway and necessarily think of the lunatics who push people onto subway tracks, and so forth. I know, it doesn't quite stir up a romanticized feeling of "a sense of connection to the earth." But does the Japanese Capsule Hotel of Death?

56 comments:

Quayle said...

Soylent Green is People!

RideSpaceMountain said...

“is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies."

This. A human is not your dog or cat, and biologically breaking down a macro-organism larger than 100lbs is considerably more complicated than something like the family dog. It takes a lot longer than people think. Ask any hunter, or better yet any military graves registry personnel just how long, they'll tell you.

Lurker21 said...

Um ... no thanks.

Though it is less edgy than what the Parsees have been doing for centuries.

I wonder how many people got the idea of "green" interments from Six Feet Under.

That does sound like a more humane or more natural way of giving your body back to the earth than human composting.

mikee said...

Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.

Maybe it was all the Ash Wednesdays, but I prefer cremation and use as mineral enrichment of a flower bed.

iowan2 said...

Dehumanizing
We have for a large swath of the population, dehumanized the beginning stage of humans, this is working to do the same with the end of our mortal existence.

There is a reason almost all cultures, solemnize the end of this stage of our existence.

I think it was Chesterton that offered, 'it is best to understand why a fence was built, before you take it down'.

The Vault Dweller said...

Funeral rites are for the living. The solemnity and reverence with which we treat the deceased emotionally reinforces in us that that person was important, that we are important, and that all humans are important. Even if a person isn't religious and is very secular minded, he or she should be able to appreciate the fact that all the basis for human rights rests on the fact that humans are special just because they are human. And despite momentary bursts of reason and logic, humans are by and large irrational and emotional. The emotional context in which we treat subjects affects the manner in which we will act on those subjects and related subjects. It is why ridicule and mockery is such an effective tool at reining in the powerful, and why having a respectful funeral for grandmother Ethel helps us all be a little more humane to everyone.

Misinforminimalism said...

It is ironic that people who want to "give back to the earth," presumably because they view their own existence is somehow at odds with "natural order," are unwilling to allow decay happen according to its own timeline.

RideSpaceMountain said...

I noticed I didn't include this in my previous comment...I genuinely don't care how people dispose of themselves or others when they die. I was trying to make a point that a lot of these 'hippies' are going to try to grow tomatoes on dad's freshly dug plot, and that they shouldn't do that.

JAORE said...

Just a question.... What is the legal status of the land with the green burial? Can you do that anywhere (seems unlikely)? Does it have to be in a recognized cemetary? State laws on embalming apply?

Whew... so complicated to make that last virtue signal shine.

Harvest my organs, if any of value remain. Then toast me and toss me, thank you very much.

NCMoss said...

Father Earth to Mother Earth, "Can you please chew with your mouth closed.

Václav Patrik Šulik said...

Human composting owes a lot to Ira Einhorn and his unfortunate girlfriend, Helen "Holly" Maddux.

Narayanan said...

will there be special cultivar of rose for each compost bed

rhhardin said...

Human/humus cf. Heb. adama=dust. inhume, exhume

There's earth all over humanity.

Carol said...

It's no wonder Europe has such rich and fertile soil.

Mike said...

Well you could go all Plains Indian and leave the body out on an elevated platform to dry out and desicate. Of course the body is subject to attack by crows and vultures.

I'm not certain what the "right" thing to do is. My mother and father were buried/encyrpted(?) side by side aboveground in a Southern California cemetery--coffins put into adjoining niches in a wall as it were. Dad's granddaughters saw to it that he wore his favorite leisure suit in the coffin--and also put a Texas flag and some pecans in the coffin. All three items were dear to his heart.

My brother and his wife are buried in a single grave--stacked "duplex style" one above the other in an Oakland California cemetery He converted to Judaism for his wife--and her funeral was the first Jewish burial I attended. She had been a school teacher--and I was shocked when several books were thrown in on top of her coffin. That was not consistent with what I thought of as a teacher's reverence for books. I was told it was tradition, as was the practice in several mourners shoveling or throwing dirt into the grave. My brother died a few years later-and thus it was my turn to select some books to throw in--and to put in the first couple of shovelfuls of dirt on top of my brother's coffin.

Alexander said...

I agree with vault dweller.

But even by their own logic, you would think out intellectual and moral betters would not be so keen on releasing carbon trapped underground in corpses up onto the surface once more.

Any intellectually consistent concern about carbon and "the environment" from these people should not be trying to speed up the process of decomposition of organic matter.

There goal, I will therefore assume, is to just mock and invert the human soul in general, ceremonial burial in particular, and Christian traditions specifically (I doubt these ideas are being made for export).

rhhardin said...

Usually the county picks up deer on the roadside before they start to really smell, and does something with them, who knows what. Leaving bodies on the roadside for regular pickup might be the way to go. Raccoons and the like are just left to be eaten by vultures.

Jean Shepherd liked a 60s Gahan Wilson cartoon, green husband sticking out of trash can and wife nearby, garbage man saying "It's not that easy, Mrs. Jones."

Aggie said...

I'm going to just consider my eventual cremation as my parting middle finger to the imbeciles that continue to shriek that CO2 is 'pollution', yes and not only that, now nitrogen is also 'pollution', so farmers ought to stop growing all this food.

Incidentally, nitrogen is 78% of our atmosphere, while that dangerous criminal, CO2 makes up a whopping 0.0417%, yes that's right, a toxic less-than-five-hundredths-of-one-percent, and near an all-time historic low, I might add. So, pull my finger.

gilbar said...

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Let's look at the facts!
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Many people suffer from Food Insecurity
Many dead peoples bodies JUST GO TO WASTE!

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Big Mike said...

I am going for cremation — the specific funeral home I plan to use has a program for recycling my titanium knees and all the metal screws and pins in my body. When one is a septuagenarian one thinks about such things. One of my old colleagues from work was cremated when he passed away, and he had arranged for his ashes to be shot into space. Ultimate cool, but I’m not interested in following him into orbit.

gilbar said...

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TickTock said...


HAMLET How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot?

GRAVEDIGGER Faith, if he be not rotten before he die
(as we have many pocky corses nowadays that will
scarce hold the laying in), he will last you some
eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine
year.

I don't know. Seems like composting is a very traditional way to go. Except for maybe all you pocky corses out there.

narciso said...

Ask the people of sri lanka hoe
W that works

TickTock said...

And further:

HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this
fashion i’ th’ earth?

HORATIO E’en so.

HAMLET And smelt so? Pah!

HORATIO E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?

HORATIO ’Twere to consider too curiously to consider
so.

HAMLET No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither,
with modesty enough and likelihood to lead it, as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth
we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he
was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!


PM said...

Flanders Fields Worldwide™

pacwest said...

NIMBY!!

Gusty Winds said...

Ms. Spade launched a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project

She's a little late to the game. George Soros funded Democrat States Attorneys already implemented this years ago.

Political Junkie said...

I am definitely not an environmentalist.
But I have concluded that cemeteries are bad on multiple fronts. Cemeteries take up space that otherwise could be a park, housing, or whatever.
Plus, most people visit a grave for a few years after the person's death, and never return, or return very infrequently.
The cemetery/funeral home business might be one of the bigger emotion based sales of all.
When I walk in the neighborhood I pass an old family cemetery. One of the first families. They even have some of their slaves buried there. I daydream about the cemetery being removed and replaced with housing, greenspace, whatever. Even thought about a "false flag" operation of arguing the slaves were unfairly buried there and thus the entire cemetery should be repurposed!

Charlotte Allen said...

@Vault Dweller: The Catholic funeral Mass is actually for the dead, although it is conducted by the living. Its Latin title is explicit on this: "Missa pro defunctis." The prayers of the Mass beg God's mercy for the soul of the decedent and look forward to the day when the decedent may share in Christ's resurrection.

Lem Former Twitter Aficionado said...

It's fitting that a story about how to bury someone appears in the NYT. The paper of record story burials.

~ Gordon Pasha said...

Next step, SOYLENT GREEN factories.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ENc9Ix3SI

Rick67 said...

This might sound odd but the practice shows up toward the end of the Dune series by Frank Herbert (Heretics of Dune? Chapterhouse Dune? perhaps both). When a sister of the Bene Gesserit dies she is buried by a tree in the orchard.

When one pauses to think about it embalming the dead is a very strange practice. For an extreme example see Iconic Corpse: 93 years of Vladimir Lenin by Ask a Mortician.

RideSpaceMountain said...

@Carol

"It's no wonder Europe has such rich and fertile soil."

Or Africa. Go to the Congo, the earth is literally blood red.

David53 said...

I have a friend whose daughter died of a fentanyl overdose several years ago. The daughter had made it clear that when she died she wanted her body used for some type of research. They donated her body to an organization that performs forensic studies. They placed her body in a field and monitored its decay. Good for coroners I guess. A form of composting.

Sad story, the girl and her boyfriend both ODd. This was when you could buy the stuff on the internet. They didn’t cut it enough. She left a journal documenting how they bought and sold fentanyl. The parents gave the journal to the cops who said there was nothing they could do, just two more junkies ODing.

Chris said...

I don't really care what happens with my body after I'm dead. Memorials are for the living. I am not my body. I am my spirit, what happens with that after death of my body I'm a bit more concerned about. But this idea of nurturing the earth... Seriously? The earth cares not a tinkers cuss for you. The earth would soon as kill you than even notice you are here.

Lilly, a dog said...

I'm planning to follow the Heavy Metal guy's lunch time poll answer in "Heathers."

"You go to the zoo and you get a lion. Stick a remote control bomb up its butt... push the button on the bomb and you and the lion die like one."

tim maguire said...

As burial methods go, composting isn't much different from more traditional methods. A burlap bag instead of a coffin and Bob's your uncle!

mccullough said...

Everything is strange to someone

Kate said...

When I looked this up a while ago (can't remember that train of thought now) I was also amazed at how much mulch this becomes. What do you do with all that? They're putting it in forests, it's so copious.

I believe the primary Catholic concern was not that your body becomes compost, but that the result is not treated reverently. It can't be, it's just too much dirt. You have no choice but to spread it around because it's not a compact amount.

James K said...

Ok, maybe I'm missing something, but isn't standard burial of a body (not embalmed) essentially human composting? Yes, a bit slower, and maybe less complete (the bones remain), but what's the rush?

Dave Begley said...

Ashes to ashes, compost to compost.

Seriously, we were made in the image and likeness of God. I don't like this. And I know libs love it.

typingtalker said...

In 2015, as an architecture student, Ms. Spade launched a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project ...

Well, there's their Kickstarter ...
1,218 backers pledged $91,378 to help bring this project to life. Last updated November 3, 2016.

... and their website ...

Looks like we're not quite ready yet! This site is currently under construction. Please check back at a later time.
recomposition

Any day now.

Bruce Hayden said...


Charlotte Allen said...
“@Vault Dweller: The Catholic funeral Mass is actually for the dead, although it is conducted by the living. Its Latin title is explicit on this: "Missa pro defunctis." The prayers of the Mass beg God's mercy for the soul of the decedent and look forward to the day when the decedent may share in Christ's resurrection”

The thing that bothered me in a Recent Roman Catholic funeral mass that I attended was when the priest prayed for the health of the Pope and two Arch Bishops. (Plus, to a lesser degree, the 13 human depictions in the front of the sanctuary, plus 5 more in the outer perimeter- but it was Roman Catholic, so I expected that). I am from a mainline Protestant tradition that would never have either. The funeral services were for the recently departed, and their relates and friends, and not to exult church leadership. But, as they say, you do you, and I will do me. What was hard, I think, was for his 95 year old mother, who had already buried her last two children, in reverse order of birth, leaving only the oldest (71 year old) son. We mostly went for him. And for our good friend of more than a half century. Sometimes it happens that way - my grandfather and his three brothers died in reverse order of their birth.

Hunter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hunter said...

In New Orleans cemeteries they use above ground vaults that effectively "bake" the body into ash over the course of a few years. What little is left can be scraped out the back of the shelf where the body was laid, making space for the next generation.

Doesn't seem to bother the Catholics there.

Hunter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
boatbuilder said...

Well said, Vault Dweller.

n.n said...

Human commodities never "tasted" so good. That said, the progressive path and grade taken through human rites performed for social, redistributive, clinical, political, and fair weather causes.

BUMBLE BEE said...

Trench warfare in WWI proved good for the soil, as reported above.
My first thought was that people went batshit crazy when the Khmer Rouge did it a couple years back.

iowan2 said...

But I have concluded that cemeteries are bad on multiple fronts. Cemeteries take up space that otherwise could be a park, housing, or whatever.

Other that some insanely densely packed Islands, there is more than enough land for cemeterys.
Not that I am defending them. I'm mostly agnostic to the notion. Buried all my family, and lots of ancestors in the local cemetery. I seldom take a stroll among them.
But the whole lack of land argument isn't an argument.

MadisonMan said...

Cemeteries take up space that otherwise could be a park
The cemetery here in Madison (Forest Hill) where many in my family are buried -- going back to the 19th century -- is a park. Lots of grass and trees.

Rusty said...

Eventually everything composts
."But I have concluded that cemeteries are bad on multiple fronts. Cemeteries take up space that otherwise could be a park, housing, or whatever."
They look pastoral. And some of the headstones make for interesting reading.

ken in tx said...

Some, not all, fundamentalist Christians believe the body needs to be intact for the resurrection to take place. However, embalming became common not only to preserve the body, but to make sure the body was actually dead. There was a great fear, in the 1800s, of being buried alive by mistake.

hugh42 said...

Lo, Tick Tock: We need Shakespeare. Thanks.
Anne,for perspective, try digging 1/8th of a grave. OK, Try 1/16.

hugh42 said...

Lo, Tick Tock: We need Shakespeare. Thanks.
Anne,for perspective, try digging 1/8th of a grave. OK, Try 1/16.

Bunkypotatohead said...

There's still plenty of room for us in Cuesta Verde.