The recent legalization of human composting in Washington State has left many feeling squirmy and distracted. So let’s take a moment to air our concerns about this novel form of eco-burial. Please feel free to unburden yourself of any knee-jerk thoughts typically ascribed to fourteen-year-old boys. This is a safe space.
Yes—you in the back, in the red shirt?
“Would you start by briefly outlining the process of human composting for us?”
Of course. The brainchild of Katrina Spade, the founder and C.E.O. of the Seattle-based startup Recompose, human composting is an accelerated form of decomposition by which a corpse is placed in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Oxygen is pumped in to increase thermophilic, or heat-loving, microbial activity. After a month, a corpse will yield about a cubic yard of fluffy soil, which will then be given to the deceased’s family or to a conservation group. The process, which will cost five thousand five hundred dollars, uses an eighth of the energy that cremation does. People who have suffered from prion diseases will not be eligible.
Anyone else? The man in the cap?
“Why not just use an Instant Pot?”
Fair enough. Recently, a correspondent called Instant Pot’s toll-free help line and asked if a human body could be decomposed in one of its products. A representative said, “Oh. This is something I need to check on.” He offered to transfer the call to technical support. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “Do you have an Instant Pot?” The correspondent said yes. The representative asked, “Can you tell me the model?” The correspondent could not, as he was calling from his office, not his home.
A woman in tech support was able to answer the question: “No,” she said. “You’d end up cooking the body instead of decomposing it. You’d have cooked meat.”
Uh, any less macabre questions?
“What about Luke Perry?”
That’s slightly different, but related. In March, the “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Riverdale” heartthrob was laid to rest in Tennessee wearing a “mushroom burial suit,” which, according to the Web site of Coeio, the garment’s manufacturer, is made up of mushrooms and other microorganisms that help decompose the body, transfer nutrients to plants, and “neutralize toxins.” (Human composting does this as well.) According to the biological anthropologist Daniel Wescott, when internal organs liquefy, “this purge fluid has a lot of ammonias, or nitrogen.” Nitrogen, untreated, can “kill off all vegetation near the body for over a year,” Joan Bytheway, of the Applied Anatomical Research Center, at Sam Houston State University, said. Humans: deforesting the planet any way we can.
But will consumers be able to overcome the psychological hurdle of putting soil made from Grandma into the asparagus patch? Lisa Devereau, the president of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, said, “We’re hearing a lot of ‘That’s disgusting, we don’t want to eat our relatives.’ ” Devereau herself was skeptical until she saw that the Washington proposal recommends that the resulting soil be scattered in forests or in non-food gardens. A cubic yard of soil “is a lot of product,” Devereau pointed out. “Four large wheelbarrows full.”
We have time for one last question. Ma’am?
“And what about us Catholics? Would being composted consign us to a dank and loamy perma-Limbo?”
The Washington State Catholic Conference has denounced human composting, suggesting that it’s an undignified end for a human body. But Father Dick Sparks, a Paulist priest in Vero Beach, Florida, said that a case can be made for it. “Given that Pope Francis wrote ‘Laudato Si’,’ a big encyclical about climate control and the environment, I could see human composting being accepted by the Church, as long as it’s done with love and integrity and not primarily for money. ”
Thank you all for coming. Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt.
Source: The New Yorker