There’s a lot of preference when it comes to dealing with the dead, either from the person who was alive before or from their loved ones. With green burial becoming more popular these days, people can have more choices. And now, you can ask to turn deceased bodies into compost.
After pilot experiments with six dead bodies which were allowed to decompose among wood chips and other organic material, it was concluded that human bodies are excellent worm food.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science back in 16 February 2020, the results were presented and suggest that composting is a way to handle dead bodies which are not harmful to the environment.
Human bodies can have a negative impact on the environment when they’re alive or dead. For instance, embalming relies on large quantities of toxic fluid, and cremation throws off lots of carbon dioxide.
Composting, in which microbes break down the bodies into soil, is a very good option, according to Jennifer DeBruyn, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
In 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize natural organic reduction (aka composting) as an option to dispose of dead bodies. Additionally, a Seattle-based company called Recompose expects to start accepting bodies for composting soon.
Soil scientist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs of Washington State University in Pullman described a pilot experiment in which six bodies were put into vessels that contained plant material.
They were then routinely rotated to provide optimal conditions for decomposition. About four to seven weeks later, microbes in the material reduced the bodies to skeletons.
Each body resulted 1 to 1.5 cubic meters (1.5 to 2 cubic yards) of soil-like material that contains bones. According to Carpenter-Boggs, who’s also a research advisor to Recompose, commercial processes would likely use more thorough methods to process the bones.
Her analyses also have shown that the resulting soil meets safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for such contaminants as heavy metals.
Since animal carcasses become rich soil in similar ways, it’s applicable to humans as well. “The idea of applying it to humans, to me, as an ecologist and someone who has worked in composting, it just makes perfect sense, honestly,” said DeBruyn.
The heat produced by busy microbes can also kill off dangerous pathogens. This process is called automatic sterilization. DeBruyn said that once when composting cattle, “the pile got so hot that our temperature probes were reading off the charts, and the wood chips were actually scorched.”
One thing, though, composting human bodies won’t be an option for people with certain diseases. High heat won’t kill prions, which are extremely durable misfolded proteins that can cause disease. Carpenter-Boggs said that composting “wouldn’t be allowed for people who have diagnosed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.”
Even though composting the dead is now a choice, we still don’t know if more people are going to adopt these in the future. For me, it’s a good option because we can ask our loved ones to put the soil from our bodies to nourish a forest or something like that. I think it’s a nice sentiment.
But then again, different people from different cultures have their own preference regarding this matter. Although, more people begin to realize the good thing about eco-friendly burial and they begin to choose this method.
Favoring green burial
White Eagle is a conservation cemetery founded in 2009. So far, the Green Burial Council, the industry’s certification body, has officially recognized only seven so far. But, this cemetery is a part of a growing movement to handle the dead in eco friendly ways.
“It’s been a slow, slow growth, but we are seeing the groundswell happening now,” said Brian Flowers, burial coordinator with Moles Farewell Tributes, which conducts green burials along with more conventional options on sites in Washington state.
In a 2019 survey, funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green burial options. A lot of them did it because they’re eco conscious, but others also mentioned cost.
“Most people know what green burial is. They just don’t know how to make it happen,” said Lee Webster, who heads education for the Green Burial Council.
The council recognizes 72 cemeteries in the country that conduct green burials, such as hybrid ones that allow green burials alongside conventional plots and conservation ones that can span vast wilderness areas.
“Everybody assumes you need to be embalmed or you can’t transport unembalmed bodies. The idea that you’re going to be spreading disease if you don’t embalm the body is complete codswallop,” said Kimberley Campbell, who operates Ramsey Creek Preserve, a conservation cemetery in South Carolina.
Jodie Buller, White Eagle’s manager, said she would like to see hospital chaplains and hospice workers present green burial as an option when they talk with families about their end-of-life choices.
The greening of the funeral industry
We’ve seen caskets made of plaited twigs, urns that can grow into trees, and organic mixtures that reduce the toxicity of cremated remains so that it’s safer for the soil. This means that there’s a pleasant change in this industry.
Some people in the eco-friendly burial movement blame the existing industry for opposing changes to burial practices. Jimmy Olson, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said that many conventional cemeteries are adopting their own green options.
“With cremation rates now over 50%, I would think they would welcome this with open arms, because they would see this as an option to continue to use their cemeteries. This is only going to help them as more and more people choose not to use a cemetery,” said Olson.
Also, the industry can change more significantly when more people ask for eco conscious alternatives. Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said customers should know that they can opt for a green burial and save money at many conventional cemeteries, simply by declining options that aren’t eco-friendly.
Green burials cost more than cremation, but they’re less expensive than the conventional ones. It’s mainly caused by the lack of embalming, caskets, and vaults, which add more to the bills. That’s why some people choose them.
Again, it all goes down to choices. But I think if more people begin to ditch the traditional, conventional type of burials and opt for the greener alternatives, the industry might change for a better environment. Let’s hope that happens soon.