Composting Human Corpses!

Nervous giggles or stunned silence - these are the two typical responses to my descriptions of Jae Rhim Lee's Decompiculture Burial Suit. She designed it to accelerate the decomposition of her corpse after she dies, and to decontaminate her remains if her body has accumulated toxins from pharmaceuticals, processed foods, cosmetics, or exposure to environmental contaminants while she was alive. But a recent article in the NY Times reports on a burial system that may be even more extreme in its commitment to replenishing the environment.

Katrina Spade, a 37-year-old Seattle architect is designing a human composting facility. There is no scientific reason why human beings cannot be composted. Farmers regularly compost the bodies of dead livestock, while some state transportation departments compost roadkill.  Spade comments, “Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds,” Ms. Spade said. But “our bodies have nutrients. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”

Spade---Urban-Death-ProjectgUrban Death Project

The process is involves placing the dead body, which is nitrogen-rich, inside a mound of carbon-rich material like wood chips and sawdust. Add moisture and microbes stir into action. Bacteria release enzymes that break down tissues into basic amino acides. In the process they heat up, producing temperatures that can reach 140 degrees, high enough to kill common pathogens. Eventually, the nitrogen-rich molecules bind with the carbon-rich ones, creating a soil-like substance.

The building Spade is designing to conduct this process is enhanced with opportunities for ritualized mourning.
It consists of a three-story vault that she calls “the core.” Loved ones would carry their deceased, wrapped in a shroud, up a circular ramp to the top. There, during a “laying in” ceremony, mourners would place the body inside the core, which could hold perhaps 30 corpses at a time. Over the next several weeks, each body would move down the core until the first stage of composting was complete. In a second stage, material would be screened, along with any remaining bones, and the compost would be cured. When the process is complete, survivors could collect some of the compost to use in their garden, plant a tree, or return to the life cycle in some other manner. She thereby combines environmental benefits with the spiritual comfort of connecting death to the cycle of life.

 Ms. Spade foresees the rest going to nearby parks or conservation lands. Each human composting would cost about $2,500, a fraction of the price of conventional burial, Ms. Spade estimates. But success is hardly guaranteed. Obstacles include skepticism, disgust, health concerns, and legal hurdles.