Human Composting

I heard this bit on a local NPR station the other day, sort of a trial balloon on human composting. Some interesting bits:

The human composting … involves placing bodies in vessels where they can be covered in wood chips and straw. The rotating vessels would then be aerated as well as temperature- and moisture-controlled to help naturally-occurring microbes and bacteria break down the human remains — including teeth and bones. (A)fter about 30 days, the accelerated decomposition yields about one cubic yard of soil compost per human body.

I recognize the “natural” return to “dust,” it occurs to me this process is more closely aligned with the original religious notions of human burial. The Western phenomenon of funeral homes with their use of chemistry to enbalm a body, plus fancy vermin-proof caskets–much of this would all be a relatively recent practice, except for the very rich. Curious that a “new” post-death treatment with an eye to carbon emissions and other environmental concerns would possibly align more with the Judeo-Christian tradition of treating a dead body.

Seattle’s Katrina Spade testified:

In addition to being safe, recomposition is natural and sustainable. It provides significant savings in carbon emissions, which is especially important because Washington has the highest rate of cremation in the country at 76 percent.

76 percent in my state? That doesn’t seem out of line with my experience of the past three-plus years serving at funerals.

Another method was discussed in this piece, alkaline hydrolysis. I was not familiar with it.

(It) involves dissolving a body in water and lye under heat and pressure. Nineteen U.S. states — including Idaho, Oregon and California — already allow alkaline hydrolysis, which is sometimes marketed as “bio cremation.”

The Church permits cremation, and virtually endorsed this (more economical) option with a 1994 addendum to the 1989 edition of the Order of Christian Funerals. I wouldn’t foresee any change to the Catholic burial rites for human composting. Vigil and Funeral Mass with the body. I could imagine a body brought to a composting facility with internment rituals. Given the distaste for death in our culture, final committal rituals are less and less common these days.

The western tradition of burial may be fading. But I’d say the concern for dignity after death would be enough to ensure any “new” option for human remains would be carefully vetted and implemented.

My own preference: no embalming, pine casket, simple burial. The likely end for my body would be cremation–I don’t anticipate much family money will be on hand when I die.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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