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Human Recycling – the New Green?

by Jerri Haaven
Certified Celebrant and Grief Recovery Specialist

Green and biodegradable funeral options

When I think of composting I am reminded of a house I lived in about 25 years ago. Behind the tool shed we maintained a pile of rotting leaves and grass trimmings gathered from our weekly lawn care. We didn’t know what to do with it. We were told that it was good for the environment, and that somehow that ugly pile would turn to a soil enriching resource. Composting is defined as a mixture of decayed or decaying organic matter used to fertilize soil. All I knew was that it didn’t smell great, was actually warm to the touch, and was visually unappealing.

So when I read a story recently about a man’s final wish to bury his body in compost “to keep on working” even after death, I was intrigued and somewhat amused. My mind instantly flashed to an image of dear Grandpa Joe being tossed under a pile of leaves, as the “eco-friendly” thing to do! To me, it was one of the oddest stories I’d read. I wanted to know more about this unusual final wish to essentially be recycled, and I wanted to understand why anyone would want to do this.

The Environmental Impact of Conventional Burials

Let’s begin with facts. The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Industry (ICCFA) quotes statistics on their website obtained from CNBC's news special Death: It's a Living, which originally aired on January 31, 2013. Among many interesting facts, the one that struck me is that 1.5 million caskets are sold each year. Think about that for a moment. The resulting environmental impact of that many caskets used in conventional burials is staggering. “Green Funeral Guide” states that:

Each year cemeteries across the US bury approximately:

  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)
  • 90,272 tons of steel (caskets)
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
  • 827,060 US gallons of embalming fluid

Not exactly eco-friendly, is it?

Taking “Green” to a New Level

With that kind of impact to the earth, and for those who are already eco-conscious and in the habit of recycling food, metals, aluminum, paper, cardboard – as well as composting – is it so far fetched to recycle one’s own body?

The Urban Death Project doesn’t think so. They have taken the idea of composting to a whole new level. The company’s home page boldly claims:

  Because death is momentous, miraculous, and mysterious
  Because the cycles of nature help us grieve and heal
  Because our bodies are full of life-giving potential
  We propose a new option for laying our loved ones to rest.

Based in Seattle, this young company has a vision of turning our deceased into soil-building material through the ritual of composting. The website provides information that explains how bodies are placed in a “core” with other high-carbon materials. Over the span of a few months, the bodies decompose fully, leaving rich compost. The deceased’s family members are then able to take the compost back to their homes, which they can use in their yard or garden.

Sound ridiculous?

What is Life?

In it’s most simplistic form, 96% the human body is made up of just four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Then consider that in order for plants to grow, they require most of the same mineral and non-mineral nutrients that our bodies leave behind when we die: oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen and nitrogen. Maybe recycling Grandpa Joe isn’t such a bad idea, after all!  

Katrina Spade, Founder and Executive Director of Urban Death Project, confirms this fact and states that after death, our bodies contain life-giving nutrients. “The bodies we leave behind aren’t just shells of our former selves, rather, they are full of … the building blocks of nutrient rich soil.”

Spade’s vision gives a whole new meaning to “carbon footprint.” Her proposal to turn our deceased into compost is from another dimension. But she firmly believes that through education, people who are squeamish about dead bodies being made into compost will eventually grow to accept this form of human recycling. And in a very odd way, it makes perfect sense -- for some of us.

Personally, I’m not quite ready to commit to the idea of being turned into compost. For those interested in eco-friendly death solutions, one might consider being cremated and transferred into biodegradable urns for burial or to be submerged in water. Rather than being placed underneath a pile of compost, you also have the option to be "reborn" as a pine tree or a maple tree with the help of the innovative Bios Urn.

Bios Urn

It’s not to say over time I couldn't embrace human recycling. But I’m still working on making sure my newspapers and other recyclables make it to the recycling bin each week. Maybe when I’m 100% “green,” then I can commit all that I am to this idea.

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.