There are many people across the world that happily compost organic items in their homes or backyards and then use the material to fertilize their gardens. I wonder how many of those people would be willing to use the result of a composted human body in the same manner.
Something that I have not truly considered is the environmental, spatial or economic cost of death; the physical disposal of the human body. Approximately 56 million people die each year [in the US]. What happens to all of those bodies? “Death in the US is a 13.4 billion dollar industry”, which takes in to account cremation, funeral home costs, embalming, and burial, among others. Since the recession hit in 2008, the percentage of people choosing cremation over embalming and a casket burial drastically increased largely because of the difference in cost. The price of cremation is on average, $2,570, as opposed to traditional burial which is $7,755. While cremation financially costs less and takes up less land compared to traditional burials, an issue that environmentalists are concerned about is the release of carbon dioxide from the burning process which contributes to greenhouse gases. With new technologies and ideas being thought up every day, there are now more than just two options for what to do with the deceased. An alternative to fire cremation is a process called alkaline hydrolysis which places the body in a steel chamber filled with “water, potassium hydroxide and heat to break down bodies into peptides, soaps, salts and sugars”.
Yet another alternative is a proposal from Katrina Spade, a sustainable design architect, to compost human bodies. She has designed a building for human composting that will be three stories high with a vault called the “core” in the center. The core could hold about thirty people at any given time. There would need to be nitrogen rich material added such as wood chips or alfalfa and heat to begin the microbial activities. The process is likely to take weeks or a couple of months.
I think this idea is interesting and makes sense for animals but it is difficult to imagine a pile of bodies degrading in the center core of a building. The concept is a good one: it doesn’t add to greenhouse gas emissions, it wouldn’t use land space for cement tombs, and it seems to be a very cheap option. But it seems that the actual process may take away some of the individualism and ceremony of remembering a person in death. To me it seems like the biggest issue is getting the general public on board. For this to be successful there would need to be volunteers who would put this in their will that they would like to be composted as opposed to cremated or buried. I also can’t imagine using the resulting compost in my garden, especially not to grow anything that I would eat. I think it might be nice to take the compost and use it to plant a tree in a loved one’s memory. I wonder if the compost material would contain DNA? Personally, I plan to donate my organs or anything that might be useful to someone who can use it to live. I don’t particularly care what happens to what would remain of my body (though I wouldn’t like to be buried in a tomb), so this could be an option for me.