New York is the latest state to give residents the option of composting their deceased loved ones instead of a standard burial or cremation.
Human composting saves more than a metric ton of carbon per person versus cremation or conventional burial, says Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Seattle's Recompose. “Ecological death care," as Spade calls it, doesn't add harmful chemicals to the soil like many embalming fluids do.
The practice, sometimes called "natural organic reduction," involves creating fertile soil out of the deceased using plant materials. First legalized in Washington state in 2019, the process is now also legal in Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and California.
Some people opt for a more environmentally friendly biodegradable casket for a traditional burial — but Spade considered that cities have limited space.
“I was inspired by natural burial back in the day when I started thinking about my own mortality. And I love the idea of decomposing naturally in the ground,” Spade says. “However, you need land to bury something.”
During her time in graduate school for architecture, Spade pitched the idea to her parents and professors. As she kept working on it, she realized the extent of people’s desire for more options for their bodies when they die.
Recompose mimics the process of decomposition that occurs in nature inside a stainless steel container, Spade says.
“Composting in its simplest form is a lot like what's happening on the forest floor,” she says. “You have dead sticks, leaves, maybe your errant chipmunk. All of that is decomposing naturally and creating topsoil.”
Inside the container, the body is placed on top of woodchips, alfalfa and straw — a perfect blend of nitrogen and carbon to help it decompose, Spade says. The body is covered in more of the plant material and breaks down into compost in a month and a half.
“About half of our families choose to come and pick up the soil from recompose, and they use it in gardens or to plant a tree to remember their loved one,” she says. “And then the other half are donating the soil to conservation efforts.”
Recompose charges $7,000 for the whole process. Some living people sign up for human composting through the company’s pre-arrangement program.
“It's a way to say, ‘I know I want this for my future self, even if it's 30-40 years in the future,’” Spade says.
Software manager Nina Schoen says her end-of-life plan includes human composting. The 52-year-old mother from Seattle says she doesn’t want to harm the Earth when she leaves it. Instead, she wants her body to go through a process that’s happening around her all the time.
“There's this combination of life and transformation into new life,” Schoen says. “And for me personally — I respect everyone's choice — but I love the idea of just fitting into that natural cycle.”
And the slow nature of the process deeply resonates with Schoen.
“We live in this culture where things are immediately taken away and you've got to get over something and move on to the next thing,” she says. “But I love the idea that death for both the body that's transforming and the loved ones around can go through this slow process. It sort of mimics the grief process.”
Knowing that everyone’s life inevitably ends, Schoen spent years searching for a way to make death a more human experience. Her family supports her decision and feels happy she found a meaningful option.
But some people strongly oppose human composting, in some cases for religious reasons. The New York State Catholic Conference, which represents bishops in the state, opposed the bill there: “A process that is perfectly appropriate for returning vegetable trimmings to the earth is not necessarily appropriate for human bodies. Human bodies are not household waste, and we do not believe that the process meets the standard of reverent treatment of our earthly remains,” Dennis Poust, executive director of the organization, said in a statement.
But for Schoen, opting to compost her remains is a generous, selfless act.
“I don't need a place on this Earth to mark the fact that I once lived. This is my time to live right here and now and in the future, it's someone else's time to live,” she says. “The best thing that I can do is do my best from what I was given to allow another thing to thrive.”
Recompose founder Spade points out that in the U.S., waste is often buried in landfills and burned — processes that are similar to burials and cremation. She believes the Catholic Church will come around to the idea.
“Human composting doesn't have to be for everyone,” she says. “I'm perfectly happy to bring it to the world as a new option that people can choose for themselves now.”
This segment aired on January 9, 2023.