Body composting A “green” alternative to burial and cremation
In a warehouse in suburban Denver, nestled between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling business, Seth Viddal is faced with life and death.
He and one of his employees have built a ‘ship’ which they hope will usher in an era of more environmentally friendly mortuary science that includes natural organic reduction of human remains, also known as composting. bodily.
“It’s a natural process where the body is brought down to an elementary level over a short period of time,” said Viddal, who likened the practice to composting leftover food and garden waste. “It’s the same process but done with a human body inside a ship, and in our case, in a controlled environment.”
On September 7, Colorado became the second state after Washington to allow composting of the human body. Oregon will allow the practice from next July. In Washington, the three companies licensed to compost human remains have transformed at least 85 bodies since the law came into effect in May 2020, and more than 900 people have signed up for the service as natural funerals become more popular.
Viddal, co-owner of The Natural Funeral in Lafayette, lobbied the Colorado legislature for the option and began building a prototype ship in an industrial estate shortly after the bipartisan bill was enacted.
Based on a design used in Washington, the insulated wooden box is approximately 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, lined with waterproof roofing material and packed with wood chips and straw. Two large spool wheels at each end allow it to roll across the ground, providing the oxygenation, agitation, and absorption needed to compost a body.
Viddal calls the process an “exciting ecological option”, and in death he also sees life.
“Composting itself is a very living function and it is carried out by living organisms. … There are billions of microbial living things in our digestive tract and just contained in our body. And when our only life ceases, the life of these microbes does not cease, “he said.
After about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is filtered for medical devices such as prostheses, pacemakers, or joint replacements. The remaining large bones are then pulverized and returned to the tank for another three months of composting. The teeth are removed to avoid mercury contamination in the fillings.
The vessel must reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 continuous hours to kill bacteria and pathogens. The high temperature occurs naturally during the decomposition of the body in a closed box.
In six months, the body, wood chips and straw will turn into enough dirt to fill the bed of a pickup truck. Family members can let the soil spread in their gardens, but Colorado law prohibits its sale and commercial use to grow food for human consumption and only allows licensed funeral homes and crematoria. to compost human bodies.
“It accomplishes the conversion of the body into a very beneficial substance – soil, earth,” said Viddal, who plans to build more than 50 body compost containers.
The Natural Funeral charges $ 7,900 for body composting, compared to $ 2,200 for flame cremation, and Viddal notes that a traditional burial and service in the Denver area can cost well north of $ 10,000. The company has yet to compost a body, but several people have signed up and paid for the service.
AJ Killeen, 40, of Boulder, has previously expressed interest in having his body composted upon his death, even though he is relatively young.
After a car accident a few years ago, a doctor discovered that Killeen had heart disease. It got Killeen thinking about what would happen to his body after his death, and composting seemed like a natural solution.
“That’s what’s going to happen anyway, right?” I mean, we’re all going to fall apart, basically. So it’s a little more natural, ”he said. “They’re going to control the humidity. They’re going to control the soil amendments and I hope some worms and some fungi will find a good home in me for a few months. And, you know, on the other end, I won’t. than a few bags of soil.
Killeen, who manages commercial real estate, said his concern for the environment played an important role in considering the option. Flame cremation burns fossil fuels that can contribute to climate change, and the process also releases toxic mercury-laden fumes into the atmosphere. Traditional burial takes up space in a cemetery which will use additional resources to keep the plot constantly watered and mowed.
“I always joke that I hope to expire on garbage day if it’s easier for my family,” said Killeen, who compostes leftover food and yard waste as part of the collection program. city.
Killeen is among a growing number of people who are considering more natural funeral options, especially since the start of the pandemic, and he believes the option will become more accepted once people get over the “ick factor”.
The Colorado Catholic Conference, a group of bishops aimed at shaping public policy, opposed the bill, saying bodily composting “does not promote human dignity.” Some rabbis are also against bodily composting because they say it violates Jewish religious law. there is not enough research to know if compost contaminates the soil and there is no way to stop people from using it in home gardens.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it if they take everything home,” said Stacey Kleinman, board member of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. They helped draft the legislation, but the group’s position is neutral.
Even with opposition, several states are considering this option as Americans become more open to alternatives beyond.
According to a Choice Mutual Insurance Agency survey of 1,500 Americans this summer, as many buried loved ones killed by the coronavirus, 21% said the pandemic had changed the way they wanted their bodies to get rid of. Traditional burial and cremation remained the first, but 11% said they would opt for a burial involving natural decomposition without a coffin. Only 4% said they would choose this option in a similar survey conducted in 2020.
Choice Mutual, which specializes in burial insurance, did not specifically ask about bodily composting, but the survey points to increased interest in more natural and environmentally friendly options.
Micah Truman, CEO and Founder of Return Home South of Seattle, manages an 11,500 square foot facility that includes 74 vessels. So far, his company has composted 16 bodies in what he describes as an “extremely precise scientific operation” that only takes 60 days.
Truman said that because the composting option is so new, “it’s really about changing hearts and minds right now.” But he was surprised at the number of young people interested, including someone who recently enrolled their 8-year-old.
“Our young people will teach us how to die better. It has been really powerful for us, ”said Truman. “I think what has happened is that the younger generation really really understands that we have to make sure our Earth can stay whole. “
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