Compost Your Body
By Jodi Torpey:
How connected are you to the earth?
Colorado gardeners, environmentalists and nature lovers can now answer that question by living their values after they die.
In 2021 Coloradans gained another option for their final disposition in addition to conventional burials, green burials, flame cremation and water cremation. Now people can choose natural organic reduction as an after-death option. Colorado is only the second state to pass a law allowing for the process. Washington was first; Oregon is third.
“Natural organic reduction is a managed biological process that converts the body following death back to a fertile life-giving soil that can be returned to the earth,” explained Seth Viddal, managing member and director of solutions at The Natural Funeral (https://www.thenaturalfuneral.com/) in Lafayette. The holistic funeral home was the first in Colorado to offer the human composting option.
Members of The Natural Funeral gave testimony in support of the Natural Organic Reduction bill sponsored by Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada. Other prime sponsors included Rep. Matt Soper, Sen. Robert Rodriguez, and Sen. Vicki Marble.
Recompose (recompose.life), “the world’s first human composting funeral home” located in Washington state, approached Rep. Titone in 2020 to encourage her to sponsor a bill to make natural organic reduction legal in Colorado. After a year of delay because of the pandemic, the bill became law in August 2021.
“When they first asked me about the bill, it was very intriguing to me,” Rep. Titone said. “When I thought about what I wanted to do when I died, I wasn’t that excited about burial, especially the way I’ve seen it being done, and cremation seems like an extreme thing. It seemed so logical and so practical because this is what nature had intended.”
Recompose may have first approached Titone because she has a scientific mind and is comfortable talking about death and dead bodies. They might not have known that she is also a long-time gardener. She understands all about compost.
“I’m a gardener and my grandfather was too. I grew up in upstate New York and we had a pear orchard, a plum orchard, and all around us there were fruit trees and different types of farming,” she said.
“When I was a kid we had a compost heap that was so prolific we could throw anything in there…compost was what we used to grow everything else.”
While the bill was being considered, she’d discuss it in public forums with other bills she was sponsoring, but everyone wanted to talk about human composting.
In addition to local interest, there was national interest from The New York Times and People Magazine, among others.
She thinks people are interested because the conventional methods of burial and flame cremation aren’t that appealing.
“We have a big elephant in the room with climate change and people want to be able to do everything they can do to prevent it. Climate change is propagated by burning fossil fuels and when people are cremated that’s a large emission right there,” she said.
Instead, The Natural Funeral uses vessel composting to manage the natural organic reduction process. Gardeners will recognize its similarity to backyard composting, Viddal said.
“The body is placed in a vessel with simple bulking agents like wood chips, alfalfa, straw, biochar, bacteria and fungal inoculants,” he explained. “The entire biological process takes about six months. At the end of that time, the soil converted through composting is enough to fill several wheelbarrows to be returned to the family or donated to a network of farms.”
About 80% of families want to receive all or some soil, and they are intentional about returning it to the cycle of life. For instance, the friends of a home brewer plan to use the soil to grow hops in his honor. The wife of an avid rose gardener wants to use the soil in his rose garden.
The soil can be used around trees, shrubs, and ornamental gardens, just not in vegetable gardens, a key stipulation in getting the bill passed.
“People tend to know right away whether this is for them or not,” Viddal said. In his experience, those who choose natural reduction are adamant about it. Families have traveled from as far away as New Jersey to take advantage of Colorado’s unconventional option.
According to the Recompose website, “Human composting is a more environmentally friendly option than burial or cremation. This is because the process does not use fossil gas like cremation, does not require the casket and cemetery resources of burial, and sequesters carbon as soil is created.”
The cost of $7900 at The Natural Funeral, is close to the $7843 median cost of a traditional funeral, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Because natural organic reduction is thought to attract those who feel close to nature, CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers were asked to comment on human composting. This group was selected because of its state-wide network of trained gardeners who understand composting and its benefits.
The informal poll had 48 Master Gardeners responding; 38 said they would consider human composting as an after-death option and 10 said they wouldn’t.
Gardeners open to the idea said it sounded like a more sustainable option, that it’s more earth friendly, that it saves land, reduces carbon emissions, and other similar comments.
Those opposed had concerns about the safety of the soil, were “grossed out” by the idea, or already have plans for their disposition.
“The idea of returning to the earth resonates with some people on a deeply personal level,” Viddal said. “They’re leaning into techniques different from their only choices of burial and cremation that offer a net benefit to the earth. New options offer a thoughtful way future generations can benefit from our bodies.”
Jodi Torpey is a master gardener and author of The Colorado Gardener’s Companion and Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.