When Howard Fischer eventually dies, he is going to be composted in Seattle. He’ll be wrapped in cloth, placed on a bed of wood chips, and then his family will cover him in alfalfa and flowers. After a ceremony, his body will go into a hexagonal vessel with an internal structure similar to that of a honeycomb, where it will be carefully monitored over the course of five to seven weeks as it transforms into a cubic yard of soil.
That day is likely far from now; Fischer is only 63. However, he’s already paid in full to eventually be composted at Recompose, the first human composting facility in the United States, which opened in Seattle in late 2020. Fischer’s family is supportive.
“They know me and they know what my priorities are,” explained Fischer. “Protecting the climate and reversing climate change are very important to me. No one said, ‘that’s crazy.’”
By day, Howard invests in companies he thinks will combat climate change. He found out about human composting at a conference he helped organise, where Katrina Spade, the architect who developed the process and founded Recompose, presented. He was immediately drawn to Spade’s vision for human composting in cities. He pictured the world she described, where dying results in nutrient-rich soil that can nourish plants and wildlife. He invested in Recompose and has become an evangelist for Spade and the company.
The catch is that Recompose is nearly 4,023 km away from where Fischer lives in New York. Until recently, human composting was not legal in New York. After Governor Hochul signed the bill into law in late December 2022, New York joined Washington, California, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont as the only states to allow natural organic reduction (NOR) — human composting.
Fischer wrote letters to Governor Hochul that urged her to sign the bill. He’s relieved that human composting is now legal in New York and that, conceivably by the time he passes, he can be composted closer to home.
“Hopefully with a state as big as New York making it legal, it will help continue to pave the way in every other state,” Fischer said.
While not everyone is as enthusiastic about environmentally friendly death care options as Fischer, new types of funerals with greener technologies are a growing trend. A July 2022 report from the National Funeral Directors Association revealed that 60% of people are interested in having a “green” funeral when they die.
Despite the growing success that human composting has had, Katrina Spade did not set out to become a pioneer of ecological death care. It all started when she was a graduate student in architecture in the early 2010s at the University of Massachusetts, and she began thinking about her own relationship with death.
One day, a friend mentioned to Spade that a common means of disposing of dead farm animals is to compost their corpses. Essentially, farmers dig a hole in the property, put the dead animals in the pit, cover the bodies with sawdust, straw, and manure, and then layer the whole pile with dirt. After a few years of letting nature take its course, no remnants of livestock remain. It is a waste disposal solution that uses the resources of the farm to close the loop of raising livestock while nourishing the land.
It’s hard to imagine who would sign up to have their deceased loved one thrown in a pit and covered in manure. But this information became the seed of an idea for Spade. She started talking with people about the idea of composting people and what it could look like.
In some ways, human composting is an evolution of something people have been doing since the dawn of time: burying the dead and letting nature take its course. This idea is still alive today. While a majority of people in the United States choose to be cremated or embalmed and buried, natural burial is also popular. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that has a green burial certification similar to LEED building certifications, reported that 2021 had a 20% increase in cemeteries and funeral homes offering green burial. Natural burials don’t use embalming fluids or any materials that aren’t naturally compostable, opting for simple pine boxes or shrouds instead. After a few years, the person’s body is completely gone, and soil is left in their wake. Some religions, like Judaism and Islam, have forms of natural burial as part of common end-of-life rituals. Other people like it for strictly environmental reasons.
But natural burials are harder to pull off in urban areas, where space is limited. Spade asked herself the question: what is an equivalent to natural burial for city-dwelling humans? She created the nonprofit organisation, the Urban Death Project, to further explore how to speed up the decomposition process and create an option possible in densely populated areas. After working with scientists, engineers, and funeral directors, Spade and professor Cheryl Johnston at Western Carolina University successfully composted their first person in 2015.
The next big hurdle was getting legislators to buy into natural organic reduction, since, at the time, human composting wasn’t legal anywhere in the U.S. Spade brought soil that was once a cow’s body to meetings with legislators, letting them hold and smell it. The goal was to ease worries that this form of body disposition was gross or gruesome.
“When people have the ick reaction, which is definitely something I’ve seen, I invite them to think deeply about cremation and conventional burial,” Spade said. “Because I think the ick reaction is often to the idea of a dead body doing anything, rather than to [human] composting specifically.”
Her lobbying worked. In 2019, Washington, where Spade lives, became the first state to legalise the process.
However, the legal hurdles were just the beginning of building support. Would people really take to composting, when cremation and burial have been the dominant after-death options for decades? Spade and her associates believe that natural organic reduction’s big draw will be its relatively light impact on the environment, compared to cremation and burial. Just like composting anything else, decomposing a body requires oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, as well as heat and time, to transform remains into nutrient-rich compost. At Recompose, this process takes between five and seven weeks when the conditions are exactly right. Even teeth and bones eventually break down, though there is a stage at which the bones are removed, pulverised as they are in cremation, and returned to the soil to finish decomposition. This process is much speedier than natural burials, where the body takes years to decompose completely.
Meanwhile, traditional burials utilise embalming fluids and cement grave liners, which disrupt the process of decomposition by design. The energy needed to make and transport these elements also causes environmental harm, and cemetery plots need to be tended to in perpetuity. Cremation’s impact comes from the fuel needed to heat a crematory to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours. Grave markers like headstones have environmental impact, too. The heavy stones are extracted from the earth, transported up to hundreds of miles to a plot, only to disrupt the new ecosystem of the cemetery they are placed in.
Years before Recompose opened, Spade teamed up with Troy Hottle, who has a PhD in sustainable engineering, to calculate the environmental impacts of human composting. Using existing funeral data, Hottle found that it reduced almost a thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide per body, compared to the baseline of cremation and conventional burial, which were about the same. Hottle says the most environmentally friendly death care option depends on where you live and how the land is used around you.
The New York State Catholic Conference is opposed to natural organic reduction as a practice, because they believe that composting people does not meet their religious standard for funeral care.
“The process of composting is associated with the sustainable disposition of organic household or agricultural waste to be repurposed as fertiliser for gardens or crops,” wrote Dennis Poust, executive director of the NYS Catholic Conference, in a statement released after Gov. Hochul signed the bill legalizing the practice. “But human bodies are not household waste; they are vessels of the soul.”
The New York State Funeral Directors Association (NYSFDA) opposed the bill in its original form for another reason entirely. The statewide trade group disagrees with the bill’s stipulation that human composting could only take place in non-profit cemeteries, which funeral directors cannot own or operate in NY state.
“We are opposed to the bill, not because of the new type of final disposition of human composting itself, but because the bill as it’s written would prohibit funeral homes from doing it,” says Randy McCullough, deputy executive director of NYSFDA. This also means that Recompose, as a funeral home, wouldn’t be able to open a facility in New York as the business currently exists.
In her bill approval memo, Hochul wrote that she intends to submit a bill in the next legislative session that expands what groups are able to offer NOR. McCullough is pleased with this step from the governor and hopes that funeral directors will be allowed to incorporate human composting into their practice.
“As a matter of equity, we just believe we should also be allowed that opportunity,” said McCullough.
There’s also the question of what New Yorkers will do with the 113 kg of soil that results from the human composting process. Most people in New York don’t have outdoor space, and the state bill currently prohibits spreading the soil in the same way that many people spread ashes.
Karla Rothstein has been exploring the role of death and remembrance in New York City for more than a decade, through her work as an architect and as the director of the DeathLAB at Columbia University, a transdisciplinary collaboration between the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where Rothstein teaches, and the School of Earth and Environmental Engineering. One of her projects at DeathLAB is developing an anaerobic form of expedited body decomposition. Unlike NOR, which requires carefully monitored aeration, the anaerobic process would be completely sealed. While NOR results in hundreds of pounds of compost, this anaerobic process would result in a smaller amount of an end product more similar to fertiliser. Rothstein views this as a more manageable amount of material for New Yorkers to incorporate into their own limited green space, like window boxes or potted plants.
“The existing cemeteries in New York are in a crisis of capacity,” said Rothstein. “The remaining plots are extremely expensive and far too few for the over 50,000 people that die in New York City annually. And that is of course when we’re not suffering through a pandemic.”
Rothstein and Spade are two of the thought leaders on different coasts trying to figure out what it means to provide a truly sustainable death care option accessible to people of different faiths, economic backgrounds, and preferences.
Similar to Spade, Rothstein envisions this death care technology as environmentally friendly and connected to the places and people that might one day utilise it.
“I think it’s important that grief be respected and that the dead are able to be honoured and not sequestered from the living,” Rothstein said.
A few years ago, Rothstein got a call from a Manhattan resident after he heard about the work she was doing at DeathLAB. Paul Herzan isn’t a scientist or investor, but he is fascinated by how things work. He wants sustainable death care options for people who live in New York City.
He cares about the environment. But he also cares about remaining in the city where he’s spent most of his life. That rules out natural burial upstate or in New Jersey.
At 66, Herzan is retired, but he worked in a variety of industries ranging from publishing to manufacturing. He asks questions and wants to know why things are done the way they are. He doesn’t like that cremation is done by burning fossil fuels, especially when it’s possible to power cremation furnaces with electricity rather than natural gas.
Herzan called a local green funeral director who he heard was creative and inventive. Herzan isn’t worried about dying soon; he’s playing the long game. He wanted to hear his options and for someone to be aware of his death care wishes, even though that’s a moving target.
“Until there are viable options in NYC, my choice is cremation,” said Herzan. “I would consider human composting, though.”
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