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What Is Human Composting?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 05, 2023

Human composting is the practice of breaking down human remains into fertile soil. The green burial movement, which is at the forefront of human composting, is an initiative dedicated to offering more eco-friendly options for the disposal of a body after death. There are many methods of green burial, like burying a body without first embalming it or using biodegradable caskets or even avoiding caskets altogether. One method that’s gaining traction in the U.S. is human composting.

What Is Human Composting?

Composting is the process of recycling organic waste, like food scraps and yard trimmings, into a fertilizer that can be used to nourish plants. This is done by creating an environment in which decomposing organisms, like bacteria and fungi, can thrive.

Human composting, sometimes known as natural organic reduction (NOR), uses the same idea as standard composting to provide an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional options like burials and cremation. It’s a growing part of the green burial movement, which aims to offer more eco-friendly ways to dispose of a body after death, including options like casket-less and embalming-free burials.

There are several human composting benefits. Most significantly, human composting reduces the toll on the environment and costs less than a traditional burial.

Environmental benefits of human composting. Composting in any form is good for the planet. Adding compost to soil provides beneficial nutrients to plants that help them grow. It also helps conserve water. Research shows that when the organic matter in soil increases by just 1%, it helps the soil retain an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre. Adding organic matter helps prevent erosion and wasted water.

By composting, you can keep organic material out of already-full landfills. Landfills are the third-largest producer of human-generated methane per year in the United States, since their waste piles don’t allow air to filter through. When air can’t reach organic matter, it starts to decompose through anaerobic decomposition, which is decomposition by organisms that don’t need oxygen to survive. Anaerobic decomposition creates a gas that is composed of methane and carbon dioxide, both of which are destructive greenhouse gasses.

Though human remains rarely end up in landfills, human composting still prevents the release of dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere. Traditional burials and cremations have negative effects on the environment. Embalming for burial uses over 800,000 gallons of toxic chemicals every year. Cremation releases both carbon dioxide and mercury into the air as a byproduct.

Financial benefits of human composting. Traditional methods of disposing human remains are expensive, netting the U.S. funeral service industry $20 billion a year. For a traditional burial, you’ll pay an average of $5,000 for the casket and possibly another $5,000-$10,000 for a burial plot. That doesn’t include the cost of embalming or a funeral service. 

Cremation is less expensive, but the total cost for cremation services and a funeral can still come to about $7,000. In contrast, the typical cost for human composting ranges between $2,500-$5,000.

Is Human Composting Legal?

Only the following US states have made human composting legal:

New York is the most recent state to legalize human composting. Governor Kathy Hochul signed the bill into law on New Year’s Eve of 2022.

Other states are currently in the process of passing legislation to legalize human composting. To date, these include:

  • Delaware: House bill 165 was introduced in April 2021
  • Illinois: House bill 4552 was introduced in January 2022
  • Massachusetts: House bill 4036 was introduced in July of 2021 and is currently in progress
  • Minnesota:  HF 3466 is in progress in the house and a separate bill, SF 3045, was introduced to the senate in February 2022

How Does Human Composting Work?

Human composting methods may vary by company, but the human composting process generally consists of the following steps.

First, the body is laid to rest in a container. These containers need to be able to hold a temperature of 130°F–160°F, the optimal temperature range for composting. Carbon-rich materials such as wood chips fill the container along with the body. 

The decomposing organisms that break down organic material need both nitrogen and carbon to thrive. They feed on the carbon, while the nitrogen allows them to reproduce and grow. Proper composting requires a ratio of about 25–30 parts carbon for every one part nitrogen. The wood chips or other carbon-rich materials are added to maintain this ratio.

While the human body already contains bacteria, a mix of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa may be added to the container to speed up the composting process and ensure that as much of the body is composted as possible.

Once all these ingredients are added to the container, the container is sealed. While the body turns to compost, the container must be watched closely to ensure the ideal environment is always present.

An internal probe monitors the temperature of the container. If the temperature starts to drop, the container will require more oxygen. One way to add more oxygen is by mixing the compost ingredients. To do this, some human composting companies set up their containers so they can rotate.

After the body has turned to compost, it must be held at a temperature of 131°F. To ensure all bacteria are killed off, a sample is sent to a lab to test if the compost is safe for use. The lab will test for bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella as well as heavy metals like mercury.

Once the compost has been declared safe, the company can use it to encourage the growth of new plants. Some locations offer a service where the compost can be used to plant new trees. These “tree graves” create food and homes for a variety of creatures. They also provide a location that the family and loved ones of the deceased can come visit in lieu of a traditional grave. 

Of course, trees are also important to the health of our planet because they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Choosing human composting over other methods not only prevents harmful chemicals from being released into the air but helps nourish plants that help keep the air clean.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
BBC News: “New York approves composting of human bodies.”
California Healthline: “Listen: How Does Human Composting Work?”
Delaware General Assembly: “House Bill 165.”
Funeral Consumers Alliance: “Traditional Burial.”
Herland Forest: “A Sweet Solution,” “A Tree Grave,” “An NOR Investment,” “Mercury Free!”
Illinois General Assembly: “Bill Status of HB4554.”
Natural Resources Defense Council: “Composting.”
Office of the Revisor of Statutes: “HF 2466,” “SF 3045.”
Sierra: “Now You Can Compost Human Bodies Too.”
The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: “Bill H.4036.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts: “California Legalizes Human Composting.”

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