Turning Corpses Into Compost
Described as “a startling next step in the natural burial movement”, the Urban Death Project proposes to recycle human corpses into compost. What is startling? I submit that it is the fact that people are startled that is startling, not the concept itself. Unfamiliarity with the truism that the human body consists of organic molecules that continually recycle throughout ecosystems is evidence of how drastically we humans have become divorced from the ecological systems in which we are imbedded.
Of course, humanity’s physical organisms are candidates for composting, just like dairy cattle and road kill. Bodies are nitrogen-rich. Combined with carbon-rich materials like wood chips, they constitute the ideal recipe for a fertile medium. Microbes do all the work. Temperatures rise to around 140 degrees when the decompose materials are decomposed. In the process, most pathogens are killed whle no odor is produced.
This project received a ‘finalist’ commendation by the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Challenge in November 2016. It is in its infancy. No bodies have yet been successfully composted. Jae Rhim Lee’s approach to human burial is more highly developed. Perhaps it is also more acceptable to contemporary norms and attitudes since the corpse is still laid in the ground where the mycelia do their decomposing out of sight.
Thus, when the Urban Death Project is described as “an innovative new model of death care that honors both our loved ones and the planet earth” it is the word ‘innovative’ that conveys the significant aspect of this story.
The project relies on ‘recomposition’ to transform human bodies into fertile soil after we die. Bodies are laid to rest in wood chips. The planned Urban Death facilities would consist of three-story vaults outfitted with a circular ramp to provide access to the top where mourners place the body of the deceased. Over the course of several weeks, the body gradually descends, providing time for the composting to be complete before it returns to ground level.
Survivors are invited to collect some of the compost to use in their garden or to plant a tree. The rest would be used by parks or conservation lands.
Estimated cost of each human composting would be about $2,500, a fraction of the price of conventional burial. But besides cost-savings and ecological advantages, the promoters assert that it also benefits the living by offering a comforting way to grieve and to face mortality. Skeptics identify hurdles. “Many Americans find the very idea of composting human bodies repulsive, a contravention of cultural and religious norms. One critic on the Urban Death website commented: “This MUST be a joke. If not, there’s only one word which could possibly describe your activities: SICK.” Another commenter wrote: “A pile of bodies is usually called a ‘mass grave.’ Please stop what you’re doing.” There are also legal barriers. State laws vary, but in many other states, bodies must be buried, entombed, cremated or donated to science.