The children filed into the viewing room with their mother. They had all loved their great-aunt, and perhaps even more, they had admired her: she had been such a wise, prudent, thoughtful, morally upright lady. She had always done the right thing in every situation. She had set a good example for them in so many ways.
As they looked at her, laid out in her enameled metal coffin, they grew agitated. They began to whisper, one to another. Their mother thought at first that they were simply distressed at the sight of someone they loved in the coffin, but finally her youngest, who was the one sitting closest to her, tugged at her sleeve and whispered in her ear, “In that box, how is she going to turn into compost?”
She understood their distress, then. The children, even the littlest, knew what happened to people when they died, and they had seen the process of decay in their own garden’s compost heap. They knew that their great-aunt always did the right thing in every situation. And clearly, the right and proper thing to do when you died was to turn into compost, quietly and with dignity.
She leaned over so all the children could hear as she whispered, “It’s okay. The box is just for show, at the funeral. Of course, when they put her in the ground she can turn into compost.”
Years later, she reflected that it might have been the only time while her children were growing up that she looked them in the eye and told them a deliberate lie. She really didn’t want them to make a scene at her aunt’s funeral.
Those children’s idea of what it means for human remains to “turn into compost” is getting updated. Oregon House Bill 2574 has passed and been signed into law by Governor Kate Brown — making us the third state in the Union to legalize what some of its practitioners prefer to call “natural organic reduction.”
Human composting occasionally figures into science fiction, usually of the more dystopian or farcical variety, but the truth is the techniques are already well-developed by farmers for disposing of large animal remains.
At the very least, human composting would be a low-cost, low-carbon-impact alternative to conventional burial or cremation, but its most active promoters, the Urban Death Project, envision replacing conventional cemeteries with simple concrete “cores” reminiscent of the Tower of Silence where Zoroastrians have carried out their own funerals for centuries, into which bodies would be buried at the top with appropriate solemnity — with or without a religious ceremony, as the deceased and the family preferred, and from the bottom of which fresh, dark, pleasant-smelling, soil-enriching compost, fully developed and ready for use, would be extracted, a substance which promoters describe as “sacred, but no longer human.”
What happens to bones? Well, they are “softened” by the composting process, but ultimately, they do need to be picked or sifted out and crushed with hammers or ground in a mill. Here’s a little-known fun fact, though: the same is true of cremation. The powder that is handed over in an urn or a plastic pouch is almost entirely blackened bones which have come out of the oven intact and had to be pulverized by hand. In fact, in Japan the custom is for family members to take charred bone fragments as keepsakes, and the fact that the bones of Hibakusha— survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki— often disintegrate completely in the crematorium is regarded with horror by their families.
House Bill 2574 also legalizes alkaline hydrolysis, also called “water cremation” or “water resomation” as a method of disposal. While human composting is a radically different form of disposal which calls for new funerary customs, alkaline hydrolysis produces a fine powder which is very similar to cremated remains and could quietly replace cremation with little public attention.
In water cremation, a body is placed in a solution of strong base chemicals like sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and potassium hydroxide (KOH). This reduces it to a slurry which can be dried and delivered to the family as a powder. It is already legal in several U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
Beyond Burial and Cremation
One way or another, options for disposing of human remains in Oregon are broader than they were last year. So embrace new ways as you’re trying to plan for your own great-aunt’s compostability.