Earlier this year, the state of New York legalized human composting. This procedure, also called “natural organic reduction,” is considered a “green” method of burial, and is already legal in Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, and California. A recent New York Times article argued that composting should be the default American “death care.” The author, Caitlin Doughty, makes the case for becoming nutrient-rich soil when we die—soil that can then be used to shade the salmon streams of the Pacific Northwest or grow a tree in the backyard of a loved one.
Doughty and her associated network of activist-entrepreneurs have moved into the media-campaign phase of their project to make human composting widespread. In the article, she provides drawings, graphs, and a scientific explanation of the process. Employees at a certified “organic reduction facility” place the deceased in a reusable cylindrical vessel filled with straw, sawdust, or alfalfa; loved ones add flowers and other meaningful organic materials. For six to eight weeks, they control the temperature and airflow, and rotate the cylinder. At the end of this time, one cubic yard of soil is produced. The result: “This special earth can then be scattered in a cemetery, placed in a grave, or given to the family to use as it sees fit.”
Doughty pivots between factual-scientific explanation and special settings. When we meet her she is carrying “buckets full of wood chips up a leafy hill in rural North Carolina.” The body she is about to compost is “lying on the forest floor in dappled sunlight.” When we say farewell she is in a forest in Washington on “a re-wilding logging path,” where her human compost will “help regrow native trees and eventually bring shade to a salmon-spawning stream.” For Doughty, legal human composting is about helping “repair some of the damage we've done to nature.” She argues we should “expand our death care choices” to “align them with our hopes and dreams for a healthy planet.”
Rudely spoiling the mood, the New York State Catholic Conference gets quoted as saying that natural organic reduction is “more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.” “Holdouts,” replies Doughty, “there are still a few . . .”
In November I visited the graves of my grandparents. It was drizzling and I had to hop around puddles as I looked for their headstones in a gigantic cemetery that serves an entire region of Michigan, with jets overhead and an adjacent highway. In other words, there was nothing dappled about it, and no salmon streams were nearby. We have come a long way from the old churchyards. I didn’t stand long in the rain, but said some short prayers for them and their descendants. Mostly, I thanked God for everything that he gave to me through them and their sacrifices—which is, well, everything I am and have. I tracked mud back into the car and drove away.
On my mind was a scene from a few weeks before. I had been driving through the Polish countryside, past one of those old churchyards, as it happened. As I passed, I was surprised to glimpse some gravestones that bore my family name. It turned out that this was the parish where my great-great-grandmother had buried her mother before she emigrated in 1895. I pulled over to explore the cemetery, which was covered in road dust and surrounded by fallow flat fields full of crap and junk, with metal cans and plastic bottles in the ditches. Yet most of the graves had been freshly tended, with new candles or flowers.
The real issue with human composting is not the funeral business—though by making mourning distanced, passive, and expensive, it helped pave the way to cremation and composting. The issue is not even compost. “Dust will be dust,” Doughty echoes politely, and my ancestors in Poland, buried in plain pine coffins, will have shared what was until quite recently the common destiny of Christian Europe. They are now, if you will, special earth.
No, the issue is something else. The Catholic rite of committal makes the best case for old-fashioned graves and tombs: “Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb, you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies. Grant that our brother/sister (Name) may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory.”
This calls to mind a few things. Those gaudy gold reliquaria bearing the bones of certain saints—one day those fingers and jawbones will be resurrected in the flesh, in a glorified body, like that of the Lord when he appeared in the Upper Room. The early Christians gathered them as well. What they looked forward to was not to be a “soul in heaven” but a glorified body in a new heaven and new earth. When we partake in the old-fashioned ritual of burying the dead in graves, we confess that we too look for the resurrection of glorified bodies at the end of time.
There is a vast chasm between this and redeeming ourselves by becoming “special earth” to fight climate change and repair the damage we’ve done to nature. Whether Doughty is speaking in REI-ad mode; re-wilding dappled salmon; or running comparative specs on composting, cremation, and coffin-vault burial, the marketplace idol on parade is always and only “the environment.”
Memento mori. “Only one thing is certain: we will die and sooner than we think,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, and he was not polemicizing with transhumanists. Occasionally, I find myself saying this prayer: “Grant me the grace, Lord, to show up for death a man fully alive, wrapped in the rich reality of life, including the uglies—even to show up like Henry V, ‘our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field,’ will be fine with me.” There's an old cowboy ballad that goes like this: “I've always wished to be laid when I died / In a little churchyard on the green hillside.” The way history is going, it’s probably too much to ask for this today, but—and here's a warning to my family—if you compost me, I may come back to haunt you.
Mark Milosch is the author of Modernizing Bavaria: The Politics of Franz Josef Strauss and the CSU, 1949‒1969.
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