29 September 2022


Why are Americans allowed to compost

RIA News

Several US states have approved a new type of burial — composting of the human body. This is more environmentally friendly than burial in a coffin or cremation, but raises many ethical questions. How to resolve them and whether such an innovation is possible in Russia — in the material of RIA Novosti.

Harmful funerals

In September, California became the fifth U.S. state to approve natural organic reduction (NOR), or composting of the human body. Earlier, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Vermont did the same.

The developer of the California bill, Cristina Garcia, explained this initiative by climate change and sea level rise. Compost from people should prevent this, since it will reduce emissions from 2 by about one metric ton per body compared to burial in the ground or cremation.

Now in the United States, more than half of the dead are cremated. This generates 360 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The energy cost of burning just one body is equivalent to two spent car gasoline tanks.

Burial in a coffin causes about the same harm to the environment. When embalming the body, substances harmful to the environment are used — formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol. Every year, along with the dead, about 20 million liters of these chemical compounds end up in American soil. In addition, making a coffin leaves a strong carbon footprint. And this is not to mention the shortage of land for cemeteries in urban agglomerations.

Thanatopsychologist Olga Ivanova notes that in modern society, especially among young people, the demand for more environmentally friendly burial methods is increasing, including in Russia. "People want to be closer to nature both during life and after death. Very often they express a wish that a tree should grow on the site of the future burial," she says.

But if a person was buried in the traditional way, it is impossible to count on merging with the environment. If this happens, it will be a very long time. The body is placed at a depth of two meters, where there is no longer a fertile layer of soil, where the roots of small plants do not reach. Under such conditions, the decomposition process takes 50-100 years. The term increases if the coffin is zinc, as well as if it is wooden, but varnished or impregnated with special substances. Inside, on top of everything else, there are synthetic materials.

Wood chips, alfalfa, straw

In the USA, several companies provide composting services for bodies. The first such business was taken up by urbanist Katrina Spade, who wanted to "humanize" funerals — the modern funeral services industry seemed toxic to her in every sense.

She drew attention to farmers who receive compost from livestock carcasses, and attracted soil scientists to the project. After several years of testing on the bodies of donors, they have developed and patented what is claimed to be an environmentally friendly and safe way to turn human remains into mulch.

The burial, which is offered to clients by the Recompose company founded by Spade, looks like this: the deceased, covered with a cloth, is placed in a "cradle" on a litter of chips, alfalfa and straw measuring about three by one and a half meters. During a special ceremony called lay-in, the body is sprinkled with additional plant material, after which it is placed in a cylindrical vessel. From time to time, this cylinder turns slowly, and the employees of the innovative ritual company make sure that the right temperature is maintained inside — at least 55 degrees Celsius. This allows you to kill all the pathogenic organisms that lived in a person.

Composting lasts 30 days. During this time, microbes completely recycle organic matter, including solid parts — bones and teeth.


Approximately 0.7-0.8 cubic meters of compost is obtained from each body. The relatives of the deceased can either take the material for themselves, or donate to a project dedicated to the restoration of natural territories. Usually the second option is chosen.

The laws of the states that allowed NOR prescribe special control measures for the process: regular inspection of samples of "fertilizer" for harmful substances and pathogens, maintenance of an air purification system (a strong smell is not allowed to penetrate into the street). According to the rules, people with tuberculosis or prion infections, such as Creutzfeldt—Jakob disease, will not be able to use the service.

The price range of conventional burial in the USA is very wide. So, in Washington state, it costs from 1,390 to 11 thousand dollars (the difference is 400 percent) to carry a person on his last journey when buried in a coffin and from 525 to four thousand (745 percent) for cremation. NOR in Recompose is also not cheap: from five and a half thousand. Competitors in other states are asking for seven thousand.

A new religion against the old

The eco-friendliness built into the cult is also manifested in the organization of funerals. The farewell ceremony can be arranged at your discretion, but Recompose has several "templates". One of the scenarios suggests something resembling a religious ritual, where the object of worship is the sustainability of the environment.

"It's time to change the usual shape and shell of Darby (the name of the conditional deceased. — Ed.). We experience ambivalent feelings: and the severity of the loss, and the feeling of beauty from the knowledge that Darby's molecules will transform and find life again. Darby, thank you for your time with us and for a wonderful gift to the planet," the script says.

As confessed Spade in an interview, she would like to show that death can be not only a sad event, but also "a wonderful moment in the trajectory of a person's life."

The introduction of a new method of burial in the United States is facing resistance from religious communities. Because of this, in Maine, local legislators did not support the bill allowing composting. Catholic State Conference New York stated that NOR is incomparable "with human dignity and respect."

"We believe that many New Yorkers will be at least uncomfortable because of the proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more suitable for vegetable scraps and eggshells than for human bodies," the organization's communique emphasizes.

Composting is perceived with hostility because of the odious name, which involuntarily suggests a comparison of the human body with garbage. However, this is far from the only option for a green funeral. The simplest is the rejection of the coffin. The body is buried in a cloth shroud, which means that nothing prevents the remains from merging with nature.

There are also more technological procedures. For example, the so-called aquamation, when a corpse is split into dust by alkaline hydrolysis. This method has been used since the beginning of the noughties in many Western countries.

You can turn into a coral reef. After cremation, the ashes are mixed with concrete, from which the so-called reef balls are made. These structures with holes are lowered to the bottom of the ocean, and corals grow on them.

Is human composting possible in Russia

Such prospects are still very doubtful. "The current legislation provides for three types of burial: the burial of the deceased body to the ground (burial in a grave, crypt), fire (cremation followed by burial of an urn with ashes), water (allowed only to military sailors. — Editor's note)," the head of the LawGuider Int law firm explains to RIA Novosti. Alina Zakharova.

Composting and other similar methods are prohibited. To change this, you need to make changes to the legislation.

"Given the conservatism of Russian society, alternative burial options are unlikely to find a wide response among the masses," the lawyer says.

Lawyer Anna Salyutina also believes that the initiative of green funerals in Russia will not receive support, at least in the near future. At the same time, she notes that Russian ritualists nevertheless try to introduce non-standard methods.

So, in 2018, in Novosibirsk, they were going to hold a promession - when the remains are immersed in liquid nitrogen, where they crystallize at a temperature of minus 196 degrees Celsius. Frozen and nitrided bodies are split by vibration. Water is evaporated from the resulting powder and metal fragments are removed — dentures, pins. Such ashes can be disposed of without harm to the environment. However, the idea with the "promatorium" in Novosibirsk failed.

There are companies in Russia that are trying to circumvent legal obstacles and give an opportunity to leave life with a sense of accomplishment to nature. For example, responsible customers are offered biodegradable coffins and biosavans from mushroom spores.

Thanatopsychologists note that religious Russians do not even accept cremation.

"No matter how young and progressive we are, we would like to be composted after death (I, for example, would not mind), our relatives will bury us. They may be hurt by the thought that the body will rot first, and then it will be scattered in the forest or garden," Olga Ivanova states.

According to her, people are very much attached to the body of the deceased, continuing to treat him as a living person they knew. Characteristic funeral signs are known: "Don't cry, it will be wet in the grave." That is, relatives are seriously worried about the comfort of the deceased.

But it's not just about religiosity and superstition. "People are arranged in such a way that they need to hold on to something tangible, at least for the grave. Take care of her, sweep, paint the fence. Even an urn for ashes is an object that you can hold in your hands, with which you can talk. And if a person is transferred to compost, where do his relatives come, who do they talk to?" — explains Ivanova.

According to her, it helps many to unload complex emotions, because grief is processed, including through action.

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