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Composting Dead Bodies, or a Whole New Meaning for “Gardening with Grandpa”

not the place for dead bodies

not the place for dead bodies

If you’ve ever read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, you may remember that in his near-future dystopia, the dead are “mulched” (which I’m pretty sure means composted).  In this low-tech world crippled by climate change and other environmental disasters, dead bodies produce needed fertilizer; family rituals and such have to play a secondary role. Katrina Spade, the founder of the Urban Death Project, isn’t nearly so insensitive to claim that we’re living in a similar situation (nor to crack jokes like my headline), but she does think that our methods of disposing of the remains of loved ones can embody our emotional needs while also greatly lightening the environmental impact of traditional burial or cremation. So, while her motivations are very different from the society in Bacigalupi’s novel, her solution is pretty much the same: composting.

Now, we’re not talking about simply tossing your loved ones into a composting bin, or curbside pick-up truck. In developing her concept, Spade has focused on our need to celebrate and mourn our loved ones, and to treat their remains with dignity. So, the Urban Death Project model provides a space not only for the process of composting, but also the process of grieving. Space for funerals and other death rituals are a part of the plan, as well as areas for contemplation of the cycles of the natural world. At the core of the structure resides a 3-story composter designed to enhance aerobic decomposition and related microbial processes. In the space of a few months, our deceased loved ones are ready to return to the soil… literally.

As you might imagine, not everyone’s excited about this prospect: Washington state-based funeral director Dennis Murphy, for instance, told TakePart “That is not a dignified approach for the disposition of a loved one who has passed away.” His concern: this method would be less expensive than traditional burial or cremation, and thus would become the “cheap” option, rather than the dignified one.  There’s no reason that has to be the case, though: dignity results from the respect given by the living, not the method of disposing of a body.

One thing we do know: we can dispose of corpses through composting without creating unsafe conditions. Those who deal with dead bodies of animals do this regularly without creating health hazards (or even far-ranging bad smells). The cultural factors would likely be our main sticking points. What do you think: is composting a proper means of dealing with dead loved ones? Would returning them to the land – literally – make for a more – or less – meaningful experience for those left behind? Or is this just greenie hokum?

Image credit: Shutterstock

9 comments
  1. Chris Baskind

    I think a lot of modern objection to alternate burial traditions — cremation, etc — are rooted in Western religious tradition regarding the resurrection of the dead. In popular thinking, this requires an intact body, though it seems silly to think it any more or less miraculous to reconstitute dust and bones or ash or compost.

    Personally, I see nothing irreverent or disrespectful of “composting” people. We’re already doing this, whether we care to admit it or not. It’s all just a question of efficiency. 😉

    1. Jo Borras

      Wait, who believes the resurrection of the dead is a literal thing? Like, I mean that as a sincere question, because I always understood the Catholic (and, in most cases, Protestant) view was otherwise, no?

      1. Chris Baskind

        I think most modern Christians approach resurrection in a spiritual, not literal sense. But that’s a fairly recent development, and plenty of people still expect a physical resurrection. The early Church father Irenaeus explicitly argued for a bodily and literal resurrection, and this regarded as the traditional view. A body is necessary for the physical torments of eternal punishment, and so forth.

  2. dragontech64

    As a pagan, returning the “mortal remains” to the soil makes PERFECT sense. Once a person has stopped living, the physical body is as useful, and necessary, as an empty soup can, or egg shells.
    I hope that, when the time comes my family would be able to take advantage of this, not only because it is cheaper, but also ecologically sound, and an intelligent means of disposing of what is no longer needed.

  3. Kathryn Grace

    There is a fairly strong movement among those who wish their bodies to return to the Earth to be buried in simple wooden or recycled cardboard boxes in relatively shallow graves so their bodies can decompose naturally. I like this idea very much and would prefer it myself.

    Whenever one of our family pets died, my mom and dad always buried them in the garden where they had planned a new tree. They would wait a reasonable time, then plant the tree on the spot, and my goodness, how those trees flourished! My mom took to calling the trees by the name of the animal. The one I most remember is the Jasper tree.

    I don’t think there could be a much more dignified end than being buried in a way that permitted me to decompose naturally, and then planting a tree over me. I would love that. They wouldn’t have to name it after me, but a bench under the tree, once it had grown big enough, would be awfully nice.

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