California has joined a growing number of states that allow residents to compost their bodies after death. A new law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday, directs California officials to develop regulations for the practice known as natural organic reduction by 2027.
Human composting typically involves putting a body into a steel vessel, then covering it with organic materials like straw, wood chips and alfalfa. Microbes break down the corpse and the plant matter, transforming the various components into nutrient-rich soil in roughly 30 days. Staffers at special human composting funeral homes then remove the compost from the vessel and allow it to cure for two to six weeks. Family members can then use the human compost like any other type of compost, such as by mixing it into a flower bed, or they can donate it to be spread in conservation areas.
Each body produces about one cubic yard of compost, according to Recompose, a funeral home that specializes in human composting headquartered in Seattle. The soil “returns the nutrients from our bodies to the natural world” and “restores forests, sequesters carbon and nourishes new life,” per the Recompose website.
“Natural organic reduction is safe and sustainable, allowing our bodies to return to the land after we die,” says Katrina Spade, Recompose’s CEO, in a statement, as reported by the Sacramento Bee’s Stephen Hobbs.
Advocates tout human composting as a more environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, which accounts for more than half of all body dispositions in the United States and is expected to become even more popular over the next few years, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
By some estimates, the cremation process—which involves burning, dissolving or otherwise processing human remains into ashes and bone fragments—releases an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per body, which translates to about 360,000 metric tons of this greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. each year, per National Geographic’s Becky Little.
Burials, too, can be harmful to the environment, as the chemicals used to embalm a body can leach out into the soil. As Molly Taft reports for Gizmodo, about 5.3 million gallons of fluids like formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol are buried each year. Caskets and burial vaults are also resource-intensive, requiring 30 million board feet of wood and nearly 2 million tons of concrete, steel and other materials yearly, per Tech Insider’s Julia Calderone.
“Wildfires, extreme drought, record heat waves remind us that climate change is real and we must do everything we can to reduce methane and CO2 emissions,” Cristina Garcia, the California lawmaker who drafted the Golden State’s human composting bill, tweeted on Monday.
Still, not everyone loves the idea of turning their loved ones into dirt. The California Catholic Conference opposed the bill, writing in a June letter that human composting “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity,” as reported by Catholic News Agency’s Jonah McKeown.
In New York, where a human composting bill has been proposed, the New York State Catholic Conference expressed similar opposition, writing that the process fails to “protect and preserve basic human dignity and respect.”
“We believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies,” per the organization.