.Human composting now legal in California

My father’s cremated remains sit atop a vintage table in my living room, hidden inside a wood urn I purchased from an artist on Etsy. It seems like an antithetical end for a man whose zest for life knew few bounds.

It’s a sure bet he would have chosen to transform himself into nutrient-rich soil, if it had been an option. Now, it is.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 351 on Sept. 18, legalizing human composting. California joined Washington, the first state in the nation to approve the practice; Colorado; Oregon; and Vermont. 

However, the California Department of Public Health requested and received an implementation date of Jan. 1, 2027, giving the agency sufficient time to consider human composting regulations, according to the office of Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, the author of the legislation.

Advocates point to the environmental-friendly aspects of human composting, especially when compared to other methods of disposition. The statistics associated with traditional burials and cremation are astounding.

Traditional burials in the United States use, on an annual basis, 4.3 million gallons embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwoods, including rainforest woods, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 64,500 tons of steel and 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, according to a study by Mary Woodsen of Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve in Newfield, New York. 

Embalming fluid usually contains formaldehyde, a chemical that has been associated with adverse health effects, putting funeral service workers at risk. And it can leach into the ground, endangering the water supply.

The number of cremations has increased dramatically over the last decade, surpassing burials in this country. Human cremation presents its own set of problems. The EPA reports the process results in emissions of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and “hazardous air pollutants” known to cause cancer and other serious health impacts. In 2017, human cremation produced approximately 1.8 tons of mercury, according to the EPA.

Enter human composting, which involves the natural organic reduction of a body, a process somewhat akin to that of a backyard composting bin. It takes about 1/8 the energy of a traditional burial or cremation, says Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Recompose, the first human composting funeral home in the country.

Human composting was Spade’s brainchild. She was an architecture student when she first began thinking about the end-of-life alternative in 2011.

“When I started out, human composting wasn’t a business idea,” Spade said in an interview with the Pacific Sun. “It was kind of a design exercise and personal exploration.”

Spade spent almost a decade developing the process, raising funds–Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood was an early investor-and stewarding state legislation in Washington. Recompose accepted its first bodies for human composting in December 2020.

There are now three funeral homes in Washington offering human composting. The two-month process may differ slightly depending on the service provider, but the basics remain the same. A body is placed in a metal vessel surrounded by three cubic yards of plant material, such as alfalfa, straw and wood chips.

Oxygen, dispersed through the vessel, accelerates the growth of microbes, natural organisms that feed on the corpse. Temperature and moisture levels are also key components of the process.

The microbial activity heats the body, although other means may be necessary to maintain a temperature between 130 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit inside the vessel. The high temperature aids decomposition and kills fecal coliform, salmonella and other pathogens. 

Under these optimal conditions, most of the human remains will convert into soil in 30 days. Bones, however, don’t break down easily. Return Home, a funeral home in Washington offering human composting services, is transparent about the procedure it uses to hasten the decomposition of bones.

“During the screening process, we remove bones from the soil, grind them into 1/8-inch shards and then add them back,” Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, said in an interview with the Pacific Sun. “Bone is hard on the outside and porous on the inside. The smaller pieces of bone allow the microbes to transform them into soil.”

The final 30-day phase, referred to as curing or resting, allows the soil to cool and emit carbon dioxide. The result is one cubic yard of soil, enough to fill the back of a pickup truck. Loved ones can choose to take the entire amount, donate it to a land preserve or a combination of both.

Return Home has composted 90 bodies since it opened in June 2021, with 70% of families taking all the soil, according to Truman.

“The remaining 30% take some or none,” Truman said. “Very few, a minority take none. Two families have done that.”

Truman prefers to call human composting “Terramation,” a term his team at Returning Home coined and trademarked. It has a gentler connotation, indicating one of the challenges facing the human composting industry – the perception of the process.

Representatives of the Catholic Church have denounced human composting for a variety of reasons. Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said human composting “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity,” according to the National Catholic Reporter. 

In the Jewish religion, wrapping the body in a white shroud and burial in a plain pine casket has been the tradition for many generations. Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi in New York, rejects human composting, while Rabbi Ted Falcon wants his body composted, according to an article in The Forward, a Jewish publication.

Islamic tradition calls for wrapping the body in a white shroud and burial directly in the soil without a casket. This natural burial is good for the environment and respectful to the deceased, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Pacific Sun.

“Although Islamic scholars tells us that certain forms of disposal allowed by California’s new law—such as mechanically ‘grinding, crushing or pulverizing’ a body to turn it into soil—would be considered acts of desecration and hence prohibited under Islamic law, scholars also recognize that every deceased person has the right to be buried in accordance with their own wishes or faith traditions, as long as it does not harm the public,” Mitchell said.

Slade, CEO of Recompose, believes the slow adoption of the human composting process has less to do with religion and more to do with awareness–or lack thereof. As of the end of September, Recompose has composted the remains of 189 people in the 21 months since it opened.

“Even though human composting is out there in the press, relatively few people know that it exists as an option,” Slade said.

Return Home’s CEO, Truman, says the Terramation process is especially interesting to younger people because of their concerns about the planet. Almost 480,000 people follow Return Home on Tik Tok, a social media platform with 75% of its users under the age of 35.

Green burial, better known and more widely accepted than human composting, alisso favored by environmentally-conscious people. Embalming isn’t permitted. The body is placed into a biodegradable container and buried directly in the ground, without the use of a burial vault. Slade says green burial inspired her human composting concept.

Fernwood Cemetery and Funeral Home in Mill Valley offers green burials, as well as traditional burials and cremation. Graves in the green cemetery, located adjacent to the Golden Gate Recreation area, can be marked with a small, natural boulder or nothing at all because each site is mapped by GPS.

“We have more people choosing natural burials over traditional burials and cremation,” Janet DeYoung, Fernwood’s manager, said. “In a natural burial, it takes about two years [for the body] to totally decompose.”

The environmental impact of green burials is land use, which is not an issue with human composting. As DeYoung points out, they don’t disinter the decomposed remains after a green burial.

Another major difference between the two alternatives is price. The cost for a green burial plot in Fernwood starts at $13,500, while Recompose charges $7,000 for human composting and Return Home’s fee is $4,950.

For an additional charge, Recompose and Return Home offer a laying-in ceremony, which allows loved ones to be present when the body is transferred into the metal vault where the composting process takes place. 

Slade and Truman say they’ll open locations in California in 2027, when licensing becomes available for human composting facilities. Some Marin residents will wait until then to consider whether to turn their bodies into fertile soil, although others may not have the luxury of time.

Both Recompose and Returning Home accept bodies from outside Washington. A local funeral home can assist with the transportation arrangements.

Nikki Silverstein
Got a Hero or a Zero? Please send submissions to [email protected] Toss roses, hurl stones with more Heroes and Zeroes at pacificsun.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. Ancient human wisdom recognized that the quickest way to reach our next natural state after drawing our last breath was to become one with earth. In earlier times I imagine kin covered bodies with whatever would keep scavengers from “desecrating” our remains. But whatever is used — rocks, dirt, coffins, vaults, crypts, urns — just delays our inevitable eternal reward which is to become one with Mother Earth. Composting remains provides a sensible option to that end which allows us to be reborn as living organisms once more, placed wherever our kin prefer.

    I applaud the governor for signing the law, but wonder what the real or argued reasons were for dragging the implementation out to 2027.
    Five years on to enact a process that has proceeded without this foolishness for millions of years. Possibly to extend profits to a very lucrative, but dying industry? We are wasting precious time and resources; and we are fouling our home in the wait. Human composting offers a sensible choice. Welcome option for the environment. Thank you for the attention to this important public issue.

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