A Recompose vessel is where the transformation into soil takes place. Pictured is a dummy covered in a sheet and plant material in a Recompose vessel. (Sabel Roizen/Courtesy of Recompose)
A dead person is transformed from human remains into soil in 30 days through a process often referred to as human composting — and it’s now legal in Colorado.
Natural organic reduction — the formal term for human composting — is legal only in three states: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Washington in 2019 became the first state to legalize the practice. Colorado legalized human composting in May, and Oregon followed in June.
Feldman Mortuary, a Jewish funeral home in Denver, hopes to have its own natural organic reduction pods in 2022, and Recompose, a “death care” company that offers human composing services, announced plans to open a facility in Denver in 2022.
While human composting is now legal, it is still unusual. Some people object, usually on religious grounds, to this post-death practice.
What it means for Coloradans
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-6 in May, officially legalizing human composting in Colorado. The Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil bill was sponsored by Sen. Robert Rodriguez and Reps. Matt Soper and Brianna Titone. The bill allows Colorado to regulate the process of human composting and prohibits businesses from selling the soil or using the soil to grow food for human consumption. It also prohibits businesses from putting more than one person in the pod where the transformation occurs without the prior consent of the deceased person or consent from the person with the right of final disposition. The bill went into effect this month.
Colorado is now officially official 🌱📝🎉 SB21-006 went into effect last Tuesday and we're already working on a Colorado facility. Huge thanks to all the bill's co-sponsors and supporters. Stay up to date on our plans – sign up for our newsletter here: https://t.co/GKc12dV0EA pic.twitter.com/gdJcYdKNaV
— Recompose | Ecological Death Care (@recomposelife) September 14, 2021
Natural organic reduction enables human remains to be converted into soil in a container that accelerates biological decomposition. Through Recompose, human remains are placed in a vessel, which is a steel cylinder, according to the Recompose website.
“After you die, your body will be laid into the vessel onto a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Over the next 30 days, everything inside the vessel breaks down thanks to natural decomposition. The soil is removed and placed into a curing bin, where it is aerated for several more weeks. Then, it can be donated for conservation efforts or given back to the person of your choosing,” the Recompose website says.
According to the website, each body that completes the process creates one cubic yard of soil.
The Recompose price is $5,500, said Anna Swenson, the outreach manager of Recompose.
The price includes “the transformation into soil, the opportunity to keep or donate the soil, it includes a virtual ceremony facilitated by our staff, the death certificate, and everything that you would expect from a funeral home at the end of life, as well as hands-on care from our funeral directors throughout the entire process,” Swenson said.
“The number one thing is that this is just one option,” Swenson said when asked about people who object to human composting. “This is just one choice for people who want it. We completely understand that human composting is not going to be right for everyone, and we want everyone to be empowered to make the death-care choice that’s right for them.”
This is just one choice for people who want it. We completely understand that human composting is not going to be right for everyone, and we want everyone to be empowered to make the death-care choice that’s right for them.
– Anna Swenson, Recompose outreach manager
Recompose is a licensed funeral home, Swenson said. “We have licensed funeral directors who handle families and the body with the same care and respect that would be in any funeral home, and that is true throughout the entire transformation into soil.”
One metric ton of carbon dioxide is saved for each person who choses human composting over conventional burial or cremation, Swenson said. This is because human composting does not use the fossil gas that cremation does.
“We also hear that folks like the idea of literally returning to the Earth,” Swenson said.
In some cases, Recompose customers have the option to donate the soil. In Washington, Recompose has a partnership with Remember Land, a conservation land trust. The donated soil is used for conservation work on Bells Mountain Forest, a 700-acre forest in southern Washington.
“The soil is used on conservation work, like repairing clear-cut meadows, and doing habitat restoration,” Swenson said. “We’re hoping to find a partner like that in Colorado.”
“Cremation destroys the potential we have to give back to the Earth after we’ve died,” Recompose founder Katrina Spade said in a 2016 Ted Talk. “All told, cremations in the U.S. emit a staggering 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.”
A way to give back
“When I heard about it, I was sold,” said Titone, who represents Colorado House District 27, referring to the idea of human composting. Titone is a scientist and volunteers with NecroSearch, a volunteer organization that assists law enforcement with locating dead bodies.
“I’ve had some relatives pass away in my life, and usually it’s burial, and one time it was cremation, but I never really liked those options,” Titone said. “I never really thought those were ways that honor the Earth, and that honor what legacy we have.”
When Titone heard about human composting, she said it was a way for her to say, “I can give back to the Earth, which is really where we all came from originally. Returning the body that we occupy on Earth is a neat way to (give back to the Earth).”
“Some people have a difficult time talking about death and they are uncomfortable with it, and there are lots of reasons for that, but for the most part, people have been very accepting and curious about (human composting),” Titone said.
There has been a lot of positive reactions surrounding the bill, Titone said.
Kendra Briggs, the President and CEO of Fairmount Funeral Home in Denver, said she brought up the idea of natural organic reduction to the board of directors at Fairmount.
“The thought was it’s a really neat idea, but from what I saw when looking into it, it takes a good month for the process to be completed, and it also takes a lot of room,” Briggs said. “I know that we were discussing that if we were to do it, we would need a warehouse or a building, because you have to keep the pods at a certain temperature.”
Briggs said the amount of time natural organic reduction takes is also a concern.
“We came to the conclusion that we’ll definitely keep it on our radar, that if it becomes more in-demand in the area, then maybe we’ll look at possibly offering that, and what it would take to get that started,” Briggs said.
Briggs said Fairmount was also looking at alkaline hydrolysis as an option for cremation because it has less of a carbon footprint than cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based cremation method that uses less fuel and has a lower carbon footprint than traditional flame-based cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America website.
Both alkaline hydrolysis and natural organic reduction are longer processes, so they would cost more than cremation, Briggs said. “To make the investment right now didn’t make sense for us, but it’s definitely something that we’re going to be watching.”
The two aspects to the cost of a burial are the funeral home costs and the cemetery costs, Briggs said. A traditional funeral with a service typically runs about $9,000, and the burial property with the burial container is about $10,000, plus the additional cost of a headstone. Briggs said a direct cremation at Fairmount costs $2,395.
While the exact price of cremation and burials vary, as a whole, human composting is typically less expensive than cremation or burial.
Not everyone agrees with human composting, and the primary objections to the process tend to come from members of the Catholic faith.
Some religions, such as Catholicism, have long-held beliefs on what should happen to a body after death.
“The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, ‘unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine,'” the press release says.
Cremation was banned by the Catholic Church until 1963.
Some members of the Catholic faith have objected to human composting, usually on the basis that the process does not treat the body with dignity.
Veronica Ambuul, the director of communications at the Diocese of Colorado Springs, said that because human composting is relatively new, she wasn’t able to find a specific statement from the U.S. bishops, but in general the Catholic Church teaches that the bodies of deceased people should be treated with reverence.
“At least here in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, but I believe this is nation-wide, bishops are opposed to human composting because it doesn’t give the reverence due to the body of the deceased,” Ambuul said.
Burial in a permanent casket is the most preferred option, Ambuul said. Cremation is allowed, but the remains must be put into a columbarium and they cannot be scattered or kept in a private residence.
“I think because (human composting) is a new area, there haven’t been a lot of official statements, but in general, since (human composting) doesn’t seem like it would be taking place in any type of sacred ground, the Church would also be opposed to that,” Ambuul said.
“As Catholics, we do believe in the Resurrection of the body, that it is going to be reunited with the person’s soul some day, so again, whether it’s burial or cremation, we believe that the body has to be treated with reverence,” Ambuul said.
Buddhism does not prohibit or insist on specific practices for a body after death.
There is no central authority for either Sunni or Shiite Muslims, Peter Wright, an associate professor of Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies at Colorado College, wrote in an email. “That said, as a general rule, burial and the natural decomposition of the corpse is favored by Muslims.”
Due to how new the practice of human composting is, and its limited geographical scope, Wright is unaware of whether the question of human composting has come up in any Muslim communities.
A different perspective
Historically, cremation has gone against Jewish tradition, and burial was considered the only acceptable option after death.
Jamie Sarche, the director of pre-arranged funeral planning and aftercare at Feldman Mortuary said that while traditional Judaism believes burial is the best choice, some Jewish people will choose other options, including cremation.
Feldman Mortuary is offering organic natural reduction services to the public. As soon as organic natural reduction was legal in Colorado, Feldman Mortuary began helping families put pre-arranged plans into place, Sarche said.
If a person wanted natural organic reduction for their family member, Feldman Mortuary would send the body to Seattle to be composted by Feldman Mortuary’s partner there.
Sarche said Feldman Mortuary hopes to have its own pods in 2022.
Natural organic reduction at Feldman Mortuary costs around $7,000, Sarche said. The cost of a burial depends on what people choose, but a simple burial with a plot is around $12,000. Natural organic reduction is less expensive because it doesn’t require a plot or a casket, Sarche said.
When people plan ahead, Feldman Mortuary can freeze the price for them, and they can pay over time.
“I believe that everyone should have all of the choices available to them,” Sarche said about her support of the bill legalizing natural organic reduction in Colorado.
Feldman Mortuary also offers alkaline hydrolysis services. Feldman Mortuary has been doing green burials — in which a body is placed in a biodegradable coffin — for almost 90 years, and the vast majority of Feldman Mortuary clientele choose green burial, Sarche said. Green burials are more environmentally friendly, and bodies are not embalmed.
“While cremation is not technically allowed or encouraged, cremation has been chosen by some of our Denver Jewish community members,” the Feldman Mortuary website says regarding its cremation practices and whether cremation is allowed in Jewish tradition. “We believe those families should be served with the same compassion and sincerity by the Jewish funeral home and their Jewish clergy. There are rabbis and cantors of various movements in our tradition that will officiate at memorial services and celebrations of life where cremation is chosen.”
Recompose was founded in 2017 as a public benefit corporation, according to its website. Recompose started accepting bodies for human composting at its Seattle location in December 2020.
Recompose’s sole location is in Kent, Washington, near Seattle, but the company announced plans to open a facility in Oregon within the next few years. The Denver facility that Recompose plans to open by the end of 2022 will be its second location.
Recompose has future plans for locations potentially in Oregon, where human composting is legal, or California, “where it is not yet legal, but we’re working on it,” Swenson said in an email.
Recompose will not accept pet remains at the moment, according to its website.
A 2018 press release from the National Funeral Directors Association said the cremation rate in the United States was projected to increase almost 30% over the next 15 years.
Several other states are considering bills that would allow natural organic reduction, including New York and Massachusetts. Massachusetts is considering H. 4036, which would legalize natural organic reduction as well as regulate alkaline hydrolysis. Delaware is considering House Bill 165, which would also legalize natural organic reduction.
Maine was considering legislation that would allow alkaline hydrolysis and natural organic reduction, but it did not pass.
California Assembly Bill 501, which would have legalized natural organic reduction, did not pass.
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