Environment

Is human composting the best parting gift you could give to the Earth?

When I die and they lay me to rest... it will take years and years to decompose, while getting cremated will emit harmful CO2 into the atmosphere. Could human composting be the answer?

Earth Day

Recompose dummy with plant material. Image: Recompose

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what’s the most efficient way to return to that state after our demise? While three quarters of people in the UK who face the final curtain get cremated, the environmental impact is immense. Some are now considering another form of disposal to fight the climate crisis: human composting.

Human composting, also known as terramation, involves a body being put into a metal container along with wood chips, straw and alfalfa. After eight to 12 weeks, a person’s loved ones are left with a pot of soil to take home, which they can use to grow flowers or a tree in their garden or spread the soil on local woodland.

Andrew Purves, director of William Purves Funeral Directors in Edinburgh, considers human composting a more eco-friendly form of burial. He told The Big Issue: “If you bury somebody in the ground, it’s going to take years and years and years for the natural processes to happen to make that person decompose and disappear completely. Human composting speeds that whole process up but doesn’t take up precious space or use a lot of energy to do so.”

Each cremated body releases around 250kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, almost equivalent to emissions released on a flight from London to Rome. Lily Wood also works in the funeral industry and is aware of the environmental issues that cremation and burial comes with, leading her to consider alternatives. That’s when she discovered human composting.

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“Being someone who tries to take steps to leave as little of an impact on the environment as possible, I was intrigued when I heard about the human composting movement,” she said. “I love the idea of my descendants planting a tree with soil made from my remains and whenever a next generation passes on, they add to the soil. It adds a new meaning to the term family tree,” she added.

Though the process of human composting is not prohibited in the UK, it is not officially legal or widely available either, as it would have to comply with environmental and safety regulations. Wood is hopeful it will become fully legal before she dies so she can choose it for herself. She’s not the only one.

There is a Human Composting Facebook group, where people can discuss their options. Kaye Rutledge is a member. “I absolutely think it should be legalised. I would like to be composed when I die, because I like how the process can be more hands-on than a traditional funeral,” she said.

Jania Williams, also a member of the Facebook group, said she hopes that she can give her body as “a final gift to the Earth” and that more and more people will fight for its legal status before she dies. The movement has gained traction across the pond. So far, six states in the US have legalised human composting as a body disposal method: Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California and New York.

Even the Church of England has been looking into human composting. A church committee will look at whether the practice of composting will be suitable for Christian funerals, while the Law Commission has started a project to develop “a modern framework for disposing of the dead”, which would include legalisation and regulation for alternative body disposal methods. 

Both will also look at resomation, colloquially known as water cremation, which is a supercharged version of human composting. The body is placed in a pressurised tank of water mixed with potassium hydroxide, which is heated to 150 degrees. It takes only four hours until the bones are left, which are then pulverised into a powder. Over 20 states in the US have already legalised resomation, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu being laid to rest using the process after his death in 2021. There is already a company based in the UK called Resomation Ltd that is hoping to have the country’s first resomation facility up and running by the end of the year.

Andrew Purves said that there needs to be more awareness about alternatives to burial and cremation. He said: “We’ve had one or two people ask for these alternative options before but not many. I think the bigger problem is that the public doesn’t know that they exist. If people don’t know about it, then they don’t know that they can ask for it to be legalised.”

He compared the current movement for human composting to when cremation was first introduced over 100 years ago, when people “thought that this was a bizarre, shocking thing to do because all they were used to was burial”. 

“Now that there are other methods, which are going to be more sustainable, people might also find it strange or shocking or bizarre because they didn’t know about it before. It’s important that people understand that there are other alternatives out there and that they can make the choice for themselves,” Purves said.

Purves believes that human composting will become more and more accepted in the near future, “because [it is] more sustainable, more eco-friendly, and less damaging to the planet” and more people are becoming aware of how they have impacted the climate.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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