Green burials have been legalized in five states amid opposition from the Catholic Church.
The phrase “human composting” is not something you hear everyday. It is otherwise known as the “green burial” option that has emerged in five states so far. Washington, Vermont, Oregon, Colorado and now California have legalized green burials.
You are likely asking yourself what exactly a green burial is. “The process involves placing human remains in a steel box with biodegradable materials, which help the body naturally decompose,” according to Pew Charitable Trusts. Soil is produced during the process which is then given to the family of the deceased. The family may use the soil to spread in their flowerbeds or grow potted plants.
Recompose, a death care company based in Seattle, describes the process in-depth, “Recompose places each body into a stainless steel vessel along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Microbes that naturally occur on the plant material and on and in our bodies power the transformation into soil. Over the next 30 days, everything inside the vessel breaks down thanks to natural decomposition. The soil is then removed from the vessel, screened for non-organic items such as hip implants, tested for safety, and allowed to dry and cure for an additional two to four weeks. Once the soil is complete after six to eight weeks, families can either take it home for use on trees and plants, or donate it to conservation efforts. Each body creates one cubic yard of soil amendment.”
Green burials are more eco-friendly and sustainable than other conventional burial practices. When the deceased are prepared for a viewing at a funeral, they are injected with embalming fluid to keep them from decomposing so they retain a life-like appearance. Embalming fluid is extremely toxic to the environment and to us, requiring bodies to be encased in steel and concrete if they are buried in the ground to prevent toxins from leaking into groundwater systems and the surrounding earth. Embalmers and groundskeepers are also at risk of contracting blood and neurological diseases as well as cancer from the toxic nature of the chemicals.
Cremation is no better for the environment. Cremating the deceased requires the burning of fossil fuels and generates air pollutants that are harmful to the surrounding environment and humans. “Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year,” according to National Geographic.
Green burials are not new in any capacity. People were buried in the ground long before embalming fluids were invented. Allowing the body to decompose naturally and return to the earth is the most sustainable method of caring for our deceased loved ones without harming our environment and cluttering the ground with non-biodegradable caskets. We can conserve our natural resources, reduce carbon emissions and work on restoring the environment if more people switch to green burials.
The Catholic Church opposes the practice of green burials, saying that the process fails to show “respect for the body of the deceased.” Executive Director for the California Catholic Conference Kathleen Domingo said the process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”
The New York State Catholic Conference shared a statement in response to the human composting bill awaiting approval in the state. It said, “While not everyone shares the same beliefs with regard to the reverent and respectful treatment of human remains, we believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.”
The green burial option would not take away from the celebration of the life that was lost or dehumanize the process. The ritual a family uses to process and cope with death could incorporate green burials. What is the difference between receiving the ashes of the deceased versus the soil? If anything, receiving the soil that was produced from a loved one could help with the emotional and spiritual connection of knowing that new life will grow from that person.