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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Kari Paul

Human composting: California clears the way for greener burial method

A man wearing a mask over his nose and mouth holds out a large white bowl filled with soil. Behind him are large white rectangular lockers stacked three rows high.
Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, a Seattle company that composts human remains, said the demand for such after-life care has been growing. Photograph: Ted S Warren/Associated Press

California lawmakers have approved a new way of returning those who have died to the earth, after Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill allowing human composting on Sunday.

Cremation, which accounts for more than half of burials, is an energy-intensive process that emits chemicals such as CO2 into the air. Through human composting, or natural organic reduction (NOR), the body is naturally broken down into soil.

Assembly Bill 351, drafted by assembly member Cristina Garcia, allows for the natural organic reduction of human remains to soil, as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial methods.

“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,” Garcia said in a statement.

The process involves placing the deceased in an 8ft-long steel box with biodegradable materials such as wood chips and flowers. After 30 to 60 days, the body breaks down into soil that can be returned to relatives.

California is the fifth state to legalize human composting, after Washington, Colorado, Vermont and Oregon. The demand for such after-life care has been growing in recent years said Micah Truman, founder and CEO of Return Home, a funeral home in the Seattle area that specializes in human composting.

“With cremation, instead of sitting with our person and saying goodbye, we are very divorced from the process,” he said.

Not everyone is supportive of the new California bill, with the California Catholic Conference saying the composting process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity”.

“The practice of respectfully burying the bodies or the honoring of the ashes of the deceased comports with the virtually universal norm of reverence and care towards the deceased,” it said.

But Truman said there was such a large demand for human composting, and so few states that allow it, that people from 12 different states have brought their loved ones over state lines to be composted at Return Home.

Truman said that when a body is composted, it is returned to the family to do with it as they wish. Customers have planted trees and flowers, or spread soil into the ocean.

One farmer requested before dying that his body be returned to the farm he spent his life tending. “There is no limit to what can be done with the soil after death,” Truman said.

Composting runs at about $5,000 to $7,000, compared with the median price of
$7,225 for casket burials and $6,028 for cremation in California. Garcia, who had tried to pass the bill for the past three years, emphasized the environmental argument for composting in a statement.

“The wildfires, extreme drought and heat dome we just experienced remind us that climate change is real and detrimental and we must do everything we can to reduce methane and CO2 emissions,” she said.

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