I’ve never been thrilled about spending eternity in a casket and now, thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday, I have another option.
It’s called human composting — or natural organic reduction (NOR).
Here’s how it works: At funeral homes, bodies are placed inside closed, reusable containers along with organic materials like straw, wood chips and plant material and then stored at a high temperature. It takes between 30 and 60 days for the body to decompose and another couple of weeks for the remains to aerate. Bones and teeth are broken down by “mechanical means” using the same device crematoriums use to grind bones.
The process generates 1 cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil, according to Recompose, a NOR company based in Seattle.
The soil is then returned to the deceased person’s family, or the funeral home arranges for it to be placed in a serene setting like a forest or a park.
Not everyone is a fan. When I broached the subject with my immediate family, they were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of dealing with my composted remains.
Too bad. My body, my choice, and I definitely do not choose a traditional burial.
Maybe it’s on account of that macabre song I learned as a child. Its official name is “The Hearse Song,” but it’s better known as “The Worms Crawl In.”
Here is one of the more palatable lines: “It all goes well for about a week and then the coffin begins to leak.”
Then comes the chorus: “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they play pinochle upon your snout.”
Cremation was the obvious alternative, composting is much better for the environment.
It requires a whole lot of energy and produces greenhouse gases; a single cremation releases between 284 and 568 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Another plus: the composted soil can be put to good use, by giving sustenance to a tree, for instance.
“I look forward to continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree,” the bill’s sponsor, Democrat Christina Garcia of Bell Gardens, wrote in a statement.
Opposition from Catholic Church
Human composting has been legally performed in only a handful of states: Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Vermont.
The whole process is made to seem very zen. Websites for NOR facilities in other states are filled with soothing pictures of deep, rich soil, lovely foliage, bits of bark and photogenic stones.
The language, too, is comforting.
There are references to “transformation of the body into soil,” “carbon-cycle ceremonies” and “giving back to the earth.” One company, Return Home, uses the term “Terramation” to refer to process.
There’s been little formal opposition to the practice — the one exception being the Catholic Church.
The California Catholic Conference submitted a letter of opposition to the California bill, according to a Religion News Service article.
The letter compared the process to the disposal of livestock and said it “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”
In New York State, which also may legalize the process, the Catholic Conference called the process “more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.”
The bottom line
Recompose, the Seattle-based company, is expected to expand into California, but the service won’t be available any time soon. The state’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau isn’t required to issue licenses to NOR facilities until 2027. That allows enough time to allow for appropriate rules and regulations to be written for the new industry.
In the meantime, bodies can be transported to out-of-state NOR facilities, although that adds to the cost.
As for the NOR process itself, costs listed on company websites range from $5,000 to $7,000, not including extras like funeral services, flowers and obituaries.
That’s at least a few thousand dollars more than cremation, which generally averages between $1,000 and $3,000.
Still, I think I’ll hold off on pre-paying for cremation — something I’ve been meaning to do but have never quite gotten around to.