A Greener Way to Die? States Legalize Human Composting

A Seattle company is helping people leave a sustainable legacy when they pass by turning human remains into organic soil.



Do you torture yourself with cold showers because they’re more energy-efficient? Do you go out of your way to painstakingly sort and separate your recycling every week? Do you walk miles in inclement weather because you pride yourself on having a low carbon footprint? If so, you’re the kind of person who spends your life helping the environment. When your time comes, however, you might have no choice but to spend your death hurting it. That is unless you live in a state that allows “natural organic reduction”—otherwise known as human composting.

Seattle-based startup Recompose claims to be the world’s first human composting funeral home. Its service is simple: Instead of burying or cremating someone when they die, it places their body on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw inside a steel cylinder, then covers it with more plant material. The body remains in the cylinder, called a vessel, for 30 days, during which time naturally occurring microbes break it down into nutrient-dense soil. Once it’s removed from the vessel, the soil is placed in a curing bin to aerate for several more weeks, after which nonorganic items like metal fillings, pacemakers, and artificial joints are removed and, if possible, recycled. Finally, the soil can be returned to the land.

It’s super sustainable. Unfortunately, in most states, it’s also super illegal. The exceptions are Washington state, which became the first state to legalize natural organic reduction in May 2019; Colorado, which followed suit in May 2021; and Oregon, which became the third state to sanction human composting in June 2021.

Now, California, Delaware, Hawaii, and Vermont also are considering legalizing natural organic reduction. According to The Guardian, the process saves one metric ton of carbon dioxide per person, either by removing it from the atmosphere via sequestration in the soil or by preventing it from entering the atmosphere in the first place. That’s roughly the equivalent of approximately 40 propane tanks.

The process is energy-efficient, too: Recompose says human composting uses just one-eighth the energy of conventional burial or cremation.

“With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere,” California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, sponsor of a bill to legalize human composition in the Golden State, said in a February 2020 press release.

But are convention burial and cremation really that bad? Recompose says that they are. “Cremation burns fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere,” it explains on its website. “Conventional burial consumes valuable urban land, pollutes the soil, and contributes to climate change through resource-intensive manufacture and transport of caskets, headstones, and grave liners.”

The overall environmental impact of conventional burial and cremation is about the same, the company suggests.

A frank albeit macabre illustration of burial’s environmental impact is teeth, according to VICE. When people are cremated, it reported in 2015, fillings in their teeth will smolder and release poisonous mercury into the air. Although that doesn’t happen with burial, something equally toxic does: embalming. While most embalming fluids are biodegradable, their most common ingredient—formaldehyde—has been linked to rare types of cancer.

“The average body needs one gallon (3.7 liters) of embalming fluid per 50 pounds (22.6 kg) to be properly preserved, which isn’t enough to pose too much of a threat, but with over 3 million liters of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid buried in the U.S. alone a year it adds up,” reports VICE, which says naked or shroud burials also are problematic because decaying corpses can contaminate groundwater.

Because of the energy they require, high-tech alternatives like cryogenic freezing also are out. So from an environmental standpoint, human composting really might be the best solution, according to Recompose, which encourages friends and family to use composted remains to plant a tree or memorial garden honoring their loved one.

“Trees are important carbon breaks for the environment,” Garcia said. “They are the best filters for air quality and if more people participate in organic reduction and tree-planting, we can help with California’s carbon footprint.”

But not everyone is a fan of human composting. Critics of the process include the Catholic Church, which already frowns on cremation. According to the Religious New Service, in 2016 the Vatican issued guidelines cautioning Catholics against the practice of scattering cremated remains at sea and on land, preferring that they store them, instead, in a church or cemetery.

The Church has directed that ashes “remain in a communal place befitting of the dignity inherent in the human body and its connection to the immortal soul,” Steve Pehanich, a spokesperson for the California Catholic Conference, told RNS last spring.

When it comes to human composting, Pehanich suggested that what’s good for the environment might not be good for the soul. “We believe that the ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence for them,” he said.