Melissa: Death. The brutal COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing opioid epidemic, and the frequent disasters prompted by global climate change have forced both personal and collective reckoning with death. As our elderly have passed on alone in hospital ICUs and our young people have succumbed to lonely overdoses, many have wondered what is a good death, and can my own death have meaning and value after I'm gone?
In late December, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died at the age of 90 in Cape Town, South Africa. In life, he was a model of how to live. Teacher, theologian, activist. He championed the rights of the excluded and called for accountability from the powerful.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Our cause is a just cause, that we will attain human rights in South Africa and everywhere in the world.
Melissa: Archbishop Tutu also left us a model of how to die. A longtime advocate of the environment, he requested that his body be aquamated. Aquamation uses water and a chemical called lye rather than fire to break down the body. It's touted as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation because the process has fewer emissions and does not burn fossil fuel. Aquamation is part of a growing green burial movement that might allow individuals to extend their commitments to sustainability even after the final transition.
In this country, one of the newest green alternatives to traditional burial is something called natural organic reduction, or human composting. The Takeaway's Meg Dalton has more on this.
Meg Dalton: 10 years ago, Katrina Spade had an idea. She was 30 years old, an architecture student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She began thinking more about her own mortality.
Katrina Spade: Partly because when you've turned 30, you know you are mortal, it suddenly hits you like a ton of bricks, and partly being in an architecture program just allowed me the luxury of thinking about systems that humans create, and I got fascinated by the funeral industry as a system that we humans have created.
Meg Dalton: Spade's research revealed the troubling environmental impact of existing options.
Katrina Spade: You've got conventional burial where you're manufacturing and transporting headstone, casket, and then you're up keeping the cemetery, so lots of mowing and watering of that cemetery. That carbon footprint is about equal to the carbon footprint of cremation, where you're using typically fossil gas to burn the body. The other thing is cremation, of course, has emissions like mercury and particulates and then, of course, carbon into the atmosphere.
Meg Dalton: Then there was green burial, that's when you bury a loved one with minimal environmental impact in something like a pine box or a shroud. It's more feasible in suburban or rural areas where there's more cemetery space, but not exactly convenient for city dwellers like Katrina. Around the same time, Katrina got a phone call.
Katrina Spade: My friend Kate called me and she asked if I'd heard of the practice by farmers of composting livestock, they compost whole cows. This has been happening for decades now all over the US, and it was pretty much a light bulb. I was like, "Oh, well, if you can compost a cow, certainly you can compost a human being."
Meg Dalton: That was the beginning of Katrina's Seattle-based company, Recompose. It's the nation's first human composting facility. They've cared for more than 100 bodies since officially laying in their first human remains in December 2020. Inside the Recompose facility, there's a large white hexagonal structure, it looks a little like a honeycomb. It consists of 10 steel cylindrical 8 by 4-foot vessels in which the bodies are laid.
Katrina Spade: The Recompose process is that each body gets placed into its own vessel. This vessel is filled with a mixture of woodchips, alfalfa, and straw. We lay a bed of plant material inside of this vessel and then we lay the person's body on top of that plant material and fill the vessel with more of the same. In the end, you have what I sometimes think of as like a little hotel for the dead, just a little hotel room, you're lying cocooned inside a bunch of beautiful, natural plant materials. The vessel does a couple of things, one, it provides plenty of oxygen via a basic air system to the microbes that are doing the work breaking down that plant material and the body itself. Also, periodically, we rotate that vessel very slowly so that all that's inside can get nice and aerated and mixed.
Meg Dalton: In the span of about 30 days, the body and plant material break down into a soil. It resembles compost you might buy it a plant nursery.
Katrina Spade: By law, you can spread that soil anywhere that you have permission from the landowner. What we've seen is that families have chosen to use it on their home gardens, some folks have grown a tree or three with that compost, we are creating about a cubic yard of soil per person who undergoes the Recomposed process and it's like about a 3-foot by 3-foot by 3-foot box if you can imagine, it's a lot. We also have this option where families can donate the soil to conservation efforts, and we're finding about half of our families decide to donate the majority of the soil to conservation efforts.
Meg Dalton: According to Recompose, one metric ton of carbon dioxide is saved from entering the environment for every person who chooses human composting over burial or cremation. Human composting is also a lot cheaper. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in the US, cremation costs an average of $7,000, while conventional burial averages $7,800. Recompose average is $5,500 and that includes everything from paperwork to the process itself, but natural organic reduction is still rare in the US, just three states, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon have legalized it. It's also been considered by a handful of other states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts.
US funeral and cemetery law is quite wonky. All forms of death care must be legal before the practice is offered in any state. That's part of the reason why the spread of natural organic reduction has been slow according to Tanya Marsh. She's a professor of law at Wake Forest University and the host of the podcast Death, et seq.
Tanya Marsh: In about half of the states, there is a statute that specifically limits the legally permissible methods of disposition of human remains. In those states, and they're starting with a baseline of we permit burial, cremation, donation to science, and removal from the state. Those are the four baselines. In those states, you can't either engage in alternate methods of disposing of human remains or offer for sale alternative methods of disposing of human remains. In the other approximately half of the states, we don't have a statute like that, however, there's no express legal framework that legally permits natural organic reduction so then you're operating in a gray area.
I think that the funeral industry and the cemetery industry have come to the decision that they feel uncomfortable offering any new activities in that gray area without express permission from the state because they don't want to make an investment in some new technology, new process and then have the state come at them and say, "Oh, we decided we think this is actually illegal."
Meg Dalton: On top of those legal barriers, there's been some resistance to human composting in the US. First up, the Catholic Church. In states like New York, the Catholic Lobby was instrumental in blocking legislation to legalize human composting.
Dennis Poust: We want to treat the human body with reverence and dignity and the concern of the Catholic Bishops here in New York and elsewhere is that really composting human remains doesn't really fit into that definition of maintaining the dignity of the human body.
Meg Dalton: That's Dennis Poust, Executive Director of the New York State Catholic Conference. According to him, much of their resistance has to do with the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body at the end of the world.
Dennis Poust: Human bodies, human corpses are not just like other inanimate objects, they're not just trash and so that's why we ritualistically have funerals and burials and funeral pyres in some traditions.
Meg Dalton: While the Vatican has not released instruction about composting, the Catholic Church does forbid the scattering of ashes, so it's unlikely to support the practice. Another group that opposes natural organic reduction might be more surprising, and that's funeral directors themselves.
Caitlin Doughty: Funeral directing is a extremely traditional business that is a business, it's very much a business and when you add a new type of disposition like human composting, it's a real threat to the traditional order of funeral homes and what they sell and how they sell it and how they deal with families and how they talk to families, and there's already enough things like green burial and even cremation that funeral directors find threatening, and for many of them, it just seems like natural organic reduction is a bridge too far.
Meg Dalton: That's Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and self-described advocate for a better way to die. To be clear, Caitlin herself 100% supports natural organic reduction. To an extent, she understands why some people might be turned off by it, especially since it's still so new.
Caitlin Doughty: Anything that we do that is new with the dead human body is going to get the media's, "Oh my gosh, the apocalypse is on us," treatment, but when people actually learn what it is, I think the humanity of it and the interconnectedness of it and the kindness of it really shows through.
Meg Dalton: Despite opposition from the Catholic church and some funeral directors, Caitlin says the launch of Recomposed has been important for rethinking death care in America.
Caitlin Doughty: There's no question that we all feel this underlying existential terror about climate change and about the future of the planet. There is something in the concept of human composting that takes us back to a place of acknowledgment that we are not higher-level beings who should be able to control the world and pollute the environment. That we are humble creatures that are part of the natural cycle, just like any other creature. It's important to meditate on that before we die, it's important to live with that knowledge, and it's important to die with those values.
Meg Dalton: Recompose is building a larger facility in their home base of Seattle and also have plans to build out a facility in Denver, Colorado. Here's founder Katrina Spade again.
Katrina Spade: It really is about creating more choice around death care, giving as many options as possible. We're certainly not saying that human composting is for everyone. If you want to be cremated, you should have that option I believe. If you want to have embalming and a big fancy casket, by all means, you should have that as well, but for those of us who are like trying to align our death care with our life experience and some of the values we hold dear, I think this is a really exciting option.
Meg Dalton: This is Meg Dalton for The Takeaway.
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