Composting bodies takes about a month. Forest ‘memorials’ are meant to be forever. They’re just two new options for what to do when we die.
Better places, better things – there’s been better thinking in the United States about what to do when people die, with a few end-of-life options that will better protect the environment too.
The U.S. state of Washington is set to allow “natural organic reduction” beginning in May, which basically is a process to compost the bodies of the departed in a safe way. “Our service – recomposition – gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die,” says Recompose, a Seattle-area company that touts the process as a climate-friendly alternative.
Recompose says composting eliminates carbon emissions linked to cremation or the manufacture of caskets, headstones, and other items associated with burials and memorials. There’s no chemically harmful embalming fluids or waste, and each composting saves an estimated metric ton of CO2. It also creates about a cubic yard of soil that loved ones can take home for planting a tree or growing a garden.
But how does it work?
With the legal option of human composting just weeks away, a research team at Washington State University has a few answers after conducting a pilot study with six donated bodies. They discussed their findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) February meeting and plan to publish them this spring.
“It’s highly effective,” said Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs. “But it has taken some thought and some redesign to make this a process that could be allowable and acceptable for human use.”
Carpenter-Boggs has worked on the question since 2015, and says this latest project found that bodies take between four and seven weeks to decompose into a skeleton. The bones are typically pulverized during most existing cremations and likely will be for composting too, so she estimates about a month for a human body. While electrical power is needed for the process, it is overall more eco-friendly than traditional services.
The composting option may not be for everyone, though, so a second idea comes from “A Better Place.” This California-based company focuses on forest preservation by creating permanent tree memorials intended to leave a legacy that lives beyond the grave – precisely because there is no grave.
When people choose cremation services instead of burial, they avoid the land use issues attached to cemeteries that in some places, including London, are already stretched to capacity. Families sometimes keep the ashes of their loved ones, but quite often they wish to scatter them at the ocean, in the mountains, or in another place that is meaningful to them and those they’ve lost.
Better Place Forests wants people to choose trees instead, and they’ve launched what they call “America’s first conservation spreading forests.” Founder Sandy Gibson, who lost his parents at a young age, said he always wanted to create a “better place” to connect with them than the dreary Toronto cemetery he often visited.
Both of the company’s existing protected forest sites are in the state of California, where a Douglas fir or a coastal redwood can become a permanent memorial, just as a family plot in a cemetery does. There also are forests in four other Western U.S. states where memorial sites are planned.
Families are encouraged to choose the forest setting they love, the tree they want and decide on a size. “When it’s time, we’ll help your family spread ashes beneath your tree,” the company says. “Our forests are permanently protected and your tree belongs to your family forever.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. states of Colorado and California are also considering the legal composting option, as are South Korea and the Netherlands, according to the AAAS.