Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
As we face the realities of climate change, many are thinking about our carbon footprint. Not only the effects we have while living, but also the ones we make when dying. Takeaway producer Mary Steffenhagen reports.
Mary Steffenhagen: It's a Saturday in Brooklyn. Finally, a sunny day above 50 degrees. I'm taking my girlfriend, Hailey, to one of my favorite spots in the city. Can you describe what we're looking at?
Hailey: A very gothic-looking gateway that looks like the front facade of a church. When you have the gothic entrance and all of the headstones, and then there's just New York living in the background just sitting on top of Brooklyn, looking at the skyscrapers in Manhattan. No biggie. It seems like there's a lot of different varieties of trees, which is cool. It's blocking the skyscrapers, which is nice. It's like isolating you inside a little bit.
Mary Steffenhagen: Yes, it's a cemetery, Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery actually. It was founded in 1838, and it's become one of the most populated cemeteries in New York City. It was one of America's first rural cemeteries. Now, it's surrounded by concrete jungle.
Hailey: Bizarre that there are apartment buildings literally steps away from all these gravestones. I don't know if that would be very settling, living in an apartment that looks over an entire grave site. [laughs]
Mary Steffenhagen: What's unsettling about it?
Hailey: I don't know if you're a little superstitious person, maybe living right on top of a bunch of deceased people. It may be not be the most settling thing in the entire world, but--
Mary Steffenhagen: Are you superstitious?
Hailey: I am a little stitious.
Mary Steffenhagen: Now, I find this juxtaposition actually pretty beautiful, but as we walk deeper into Green-Wood, there was something else about the place that struck Hailey.
Hailey: Land is such a valuable thing, and while this is absolutely gorgeous and I do-- I'm really enjoying myself. It's hard not to think about how this land is now completely unusable for anything else.
Mary Steffenhagen: New Yorkers like Hailey, who share this concern, might soon have another option, natural organic reduction, or as it's perhaps more memorably known, human composting. This is an alternative to burial and cremation, and it just became legal in New York state.
Katrina Spade: My question back about 10 years ago was what would an urban solution, or an urban equivalent to natural burial be-
Mary Steffenhagen: This is Katrina Spade.
Katrina Spade: - where we could still return to the earth after we died, but it would be appropriate and scalable, if you will, for other billions of people that live in cities today?
Mary Steffenhagen: Katrina is the founder of the country's first human composting company, Recompose.
Katrina Spade: I see human composting in a lot of ways. It's like the city cousin to natural burial, a way to transform bodies into soil, which then can grow new life.
Mary Steffenhagen: The Takeaway spoke with her last year, and she explained how the process actually works.
Katrina Spade: The Recompose process is that each body gets placed into its own vessel, and this vessel is filled with a mixture of wood, chips, 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. You're lying cocooned inside a bunch of beautiful natural plant materials, and the vessel 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.
Mary Steffenhagen: At the end of this process, the human body has become soil. It only takes a few months as opposed to the span of years like you see with natural decomposition. I sat down with Katrina. She caught me up on the legal status of human composting across the country.
Katrina Spade: 2017 when I founded Recompose, and we started our pilot project to prove that human composting was a safe and effective process for humans after death, and we did that out here at Washington State University, and then we brought the idea to the Washington State Legislature and we said, "Here's the proof that it's safe and effective," that law was passed in 2019 and went into effect in 2020. Five more states followed and legalized the same process, so Colorado, Vermont, Oregon, California, and most recently New York State.
Mary Steffenhagen: On December 31st, 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill that legalized human composting in the state, but that's really just the start of this process.
Michelle Menter: There are so many unanswered questions, but there's also major differences between how human composting is expected to play out in New York State versus how it's currently played out in Washington, and will be practiced in California, and it's practiced in Colorado. I am Michelle Menter. I'm the manager of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield, New York.
Mary Steffenhagen: Greensprings is both a cemetery and a nature preserve, so it only does green or natural burials without embalming fluids, concrete vaults, or coffins, and grave linings made of materials that don't easily break down in the earth. What Michelle is talking about here is the fact that once this law was signed, it had 90 days before it would actually go into effect. That date passed only recently at the end of March, so there aren't any human composting services in the state yet. Before any services can begin operating, there are major questions that this bill leaves open. First, who will actually be allowed to do it?
David Fleming: The idea that you would allow a for-profit entity to swoop in and take one of the only revenue streams of a nonprofit is incredibly dangerous. My name is David Fleming. I'm the legislative director for the New York State Association of Cemeteries.
Mary Steffenhagen: That association represents about 520 cemeteries and crematory services. David was fairly involved in drafting and lobbying for the bill that eventually passed.
David Fleming: There is a clear chain of custody of the body throughout the process so that the families' sure that the remains that they receive at the end of the process, whether it be cremation, natural, organic reduction, or some other new technology, that that all blows, and that there is a confidence there through identification, that there are disclosures on what's going to happen and what could happen, and how to handle the remains at the end of the process. We want to make sure all of those things were included other than just a bill that allowed natural organic reduction to occur.
Mary Steffenhagen: Without getting too technical, basically, this bill applies the same regulations that exist for cremation to human composting, particularly on who is legally allowed to handle human remains in their very final disposition. Right now, only one kind of entity in New York State can do so, cemeteries.
David Fleming: Funeral firms have an operational part of handling human remains, which then are delivered to a nonprofit cemetery. The statutory structure in New York was solidified in 1998 out of the concern of out-of-state funeral chains coming into New York, buying up independent funeral homes, and also following other state models, and buying up cemeteries, and being able to control the entire process of death care.
Mary Steffenhagen: You can probably see why funeral homes would want to expand their offerings and their revenue with human composting. Funeral homes in Washington State, for example, can do so. In New York currently, they can't, and cemeteries would like to keep it this way.
David Fleming: Cemeteries in New York, one of their only revenue streams is final disposition, so that would be burial, cremation, or natural organic reduction. Now these out-of-state firms for profit want the authority to do one of the only things that cemeteries are allowed to do to make money.
Mary Steffenhagen: The New York State Funeral Directors Association actually opposed the bill on human composting for this reason, but they told me they do support something new, an amendment proposed in the governor's executive budget for 2024. This would actually let funeral homes in on the human composting business. David told me the State Association of Cemeteries is, of course, not for this.
David Fleming: The governor has introduced legislation as part of her budget that would allow for-profit entities that are currently prohibited from doing a final disposition in New York to allow those for-profit entities to do this final disposition process. Clearly, my clients would oppose that.
Mary Steffenhagen: Who will actually open a human composting service remains to be seen. We'll talk about the barriers to human composting after the break. That's next on The Takeaway. [music]
Hailey: Let's make everybody trees. Let's make everyone into soil, plant a ton of trees, and that can be our new grave site, because then you're technically able to go visit. You're technically able to sit with your person, but it's a tree.
Mary Steffenhagen: That's my girlfriend, Hailey, again during our trip to Green-Wood Cemetery. She's brought us to another important question around human composting in New York. Once a person has become compost, where can their loved ones actually put them?
Michelle Menter: For New York State, the composted human remains have to be brought to a cemetery.
Mary Steffenhagen: Here again is Michelle Menter of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in upstate New York.
Michelle Menter: I find myself wondering, is it really worth it to spend that extra energy and time to spur a decomposition process if, in the end, all that's happening is either they're being spread on the surface in what New York State is calling a scattering garden, or being buried in a burial site.
Mary Steffenhagen: With cremated remains, some public properties like parks and bodies of water allow you to scatter ashes, but you might need a permit. If you'd like to do so on any private property, you need the permission of the landowner. Of course, if you're lucky enough to own property with a backyard in New York City, that's no problem, but over two-thirds of us here are renters. Even if you or a loved one choose human composting, you might still need space in a cemetery for that final resting place.
Here's David Fleming again from the New York State Association of Cemeteries.
David Fleming: There have been cemeteries that have contemplated creating specific natural areas for the disposition of the remains, whether they be the memorial forest section of a cemetery or a perennial garden area. We have seen in other places where literally top soils extracted from an existing family plot, just the surface material, and then this material is put on the family plot to just make it part of the environment within the cemetery. That would be on the cemetery grounds. I think there's going to be further clarification in the regulations as to how the remains are handled outside a cemetery.
Mary Steffenhagen: That brings us to one last hurdle for human composting, simply the costs. Before legalization, New Yorkers would have to arrange for their bodies to be flown to states that have human composting facilities. In fact, Recompose, the human composting company, says that 30% of their clients come from outside of Washington state. If that's not realistic for you, you'll have to wait for someone in New York to open a new facility from scratch. That could take a while. Recompose founder, Katrina Spade, filled in some of the blanks on what that could look like.
Katrina Spade: There is a pretty large capital cost, and it's going to vary depending on the equipment, and depending on the systems used. We have a lot of folks that write us and say, "Oh, I'm based in Upstate New York. I'd love to start a facility, maybe install one or two vessels." The reality is that because the process takes a few months from start to finish. Each one of those vessels, it's almost like a small hotel for the dead. Then a few months later, that vessel is free again for use.
In terms of a business model, it's pretty tough to imagine having just one or two vessels, because there's additional ancillary equipment that goes with those vessels, so the entire system would be fairly expensive if you could only serve one or two clients a month. There's a best guess for the number of vessels you might want as a facility to start.
Recompose estimates around 40 would be a nice place to start, and then you've got a relatively expensive system and setup, not to mention the construction of the facility itself.
Mary Steffenhagen: If you wanted to do this in order for it to make sense for your business, you would really have to go all in?
Katrina Spade: Yes. It's also a huge undertaking in that you need to train staff in a very specific specialized process. Human composting is not rocket science, but it's a lot of an art and a science together.
Mary Steffenhagen: Take Green-Wood Cemetery. It's a nonprofit, but it's also one of the largest cemeteries in New York City with massive cultural and historical significance. In 2020, it had a net income of over $5 million. In other words, they're in a position to at least consider human composting.
David Fleming: You will need a significant amount of space to be able to have this operation.
Speaker 5: Are you able to say which cemeteries are seriously exploring potentially opening one
David Fleming: I am not, but I can tell you there are several.
Mary Steffenhagen: A representative for Green-Wood Cemetery told me that they're "exploring all options around human composting," but for many other cemeteries, it's simply too big an investment. Here's Michelle Menter again.
Michelle Menter: Well, a lot of cemeteries in our state are actually managed by municipalities. There aren't a lot of multi-million dollar cemeteries, whereas for funeral directors, a lot of them have the type of capital where maybe they could do it. You just have to ask yourself, "With the amount of capital you have to put up to create an NOR facility, do you expect that the demand will be sufficient to justify that type of expense? I don't know what it will look like, but I do know that it's not feasible financially for Greensprings.
Mary Steffenhagen: Exactly how soon will New Yorkers actually be able to become compost after they die? It's unclear. Here again, is David Fleming from the State Association of Cemeteries.
David Fleming: I think we'll see final regulations sometime in June of this year from the Department of State, they've been working with Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation. There are certainly cemeteries all across New York that I've been speaking to who are interested in opening these facilities. They're looking at a couple of options. One is construction of a new facility on their grounds. The other is utilization of an existing building. I know that folks are touring other sites out west to get a better understanding of how we might improve it in New York.
Mary Steffenhagen: Back in Green-Wood Cemetery, I asked Hailey another question. Would you be unsettled if you lived in one of these houses along the cemetery?
Hailey: Probably more at night. I think during the day, it's really peaceful, but probably at night I definitely would be a little unsettled to be around so many dead people. [laughs]
Mary Steffenhagen: To you, it feels like people are here?
Hailey: Yes, I think so. I think the whole point of a grave site is to have a place to physically go and remember the dead. Even though they're just bodies, you're still like, "It's a site to go remember the person themselves." I still think the person is here, or at least some iteration of them.
Mary Steffenhagen: Even as interest in human composting and other alternatives to burial increases, no one I spoke with expects that cemeteries like Green-Wood are going to become entirely irrelevant. We're always going to be creating places and rituals to remember our people who pass no matter how little or how much space their bodies occupy after death, and even as those physical bodies no longer take their familiar forms.
Katrina Spade: One of the amazing things that happens during human composting is the body ceases to be human. We actually have a rearrangement of molecules and atoms. The material produced is very similar to plant compost that you would buy at a nursery in terms of its makeup and its biology. Early in my work, I thought the fact that we're making human compost means it must be extra special in some way, and the soil biologist I work with and have worked with for several years was like, "No, Katrina. It's just compost. It's decent compost." I thought, "Oh, right, we're not so special actually as humans."
Mary Steffenhagen: Another idea that at some point it becomes on a molecular level, not human. That feels wild.
Katrina Spade: Yes, it's powerful, and it can be hard to really get your mind around, and can even feel a little bit-- I tjink for some, it can feel a little bit scary to hear that, that we won't always be human. It's also the beautiful thing about composting ourselves. It means we actually get to rejoin the natural ecosystem. With human composting, we're finding lots of folks are deeply comforted and find meaning in the return to the earth. That in itself has profound meaning for families and friends and the individuals who are dying,
Mary Steffenhagen: Reporting from a cemetery in Brooklyn for The Takeaway, I'm Mary Steffenhagen. Hey, I'm here.
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