A example vessel that is used in the natural organic reduction process created by Recompose. (Photo credit: Sabel Roizen)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

As more U.S. states legalize composting humans, some Catholics aren’t digging it

Groups are split on whether turning bodies into soil is respectful


(RNS) — Washington, Colorado and Oregon are now among the U.S. states that have legalized the process of converting human bodies into soil, a procedure the Catholic Church said fails to show “respect for the body of the deceased.” Meanwhile, California and New York are seeking to be next in line to allow human composting.

The process for composting a body was introduced by the Seattle-based company Recompose, which is now open for business after the state of Washington legalized the process in 2019. Colorado was the second state to legalize it, followed by Oregon, when Gov. Kate Brown in mid-June signed House Bill 2574 into law.

Here’s how it works: A dead body is broken down through a process known as Natural Organic Reduction by placing the body in a reusable vessel, covering it with wood chips and aerating it, which creates an environment for microbes and essential bacteria. The body, over a span of about 30 days, is fully transformed into soil.

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This process is seen as a more sustainable alternative to cremation, which requires fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide. Proponents say families can use the soil to plant a tree or a garden to honor their loved ones. In public testimony, the Oregon bill garnered widespread support.

Rory Cowal, of Portland, Oregon, was one of those who testified in favor of human composting, saying, “It provides a profound and spiritually grounded close to a life story: a return to the land that sustained us in life.”

In California, where the massive number of COVID-19 deaths inundated funeral homes and even led to Los Angeles County’s suspension of air quality regulations on cremation, State Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat, hopes the Golden State becomes the next place to legalize the process of converting bodies into soil.

“(The pandemic situation) is another sad reminder that we must legalize a more environmentally friendly option as soon as possible,” she said in a statement. It’s Garcia’s second attempt in passing this kind of legislation. Her bill remains in a Senate committee, with an upcoming hearing scheduled July 14.

Legislation legalizing human composting has encountered religious resistance from the Catholic Church.

“It provides a profound and spiritually grounded close to a life story: a return to the land that sustained us in life.”

The Colorado Catholic Conference is in opposition because the church “teaches that the human body is sacred and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral society,” according to news outlets.

Joseph Sprague, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, wrote in a letter that “disposing human remains in such manner fails to show enough respect for the body of the deceased,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The New York State Catholic Conference in a statement said composting human remains is inappropriate.

“While not everyone shares the same beliefs with regard to the reverent and respectful treatment of human remains, we believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies,” it said.

And in California, the California Catholic Conference came out against the proposed measure last year.

“We believe that the ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence for them,” Steve Pehanich, a spokesperson for the California Catholic Conference, told Religion News Service in 2020.

The Vatican, in 2016, released guidelines for the treatment of remains as the use of cremation grew in popularity. If cremation was chosen, the Vatican urged remains be kept “in a sacred place,” such as a cemetery or in a church area.

“Even with cremated remains, they directed that they remain in a communal place befitting of the dignity inherent in the human body and its connection to the immortal soul,” Pehanich said.


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  • says:

    An interesting concept. We are all going to turn to dust sooner or later. Most Protestants believe the soul is going to Heaven, the body is just housing the soul and spirit. When Christ returns, a new body is given.
    The argument for reverence is weak. Most of the graves are not visited after the spouse and children die anyhow.

    My only concern is for those who have a funeral service prior to the decomposition, what types of embalming materials are used. Some are not too friendly with the environment (not that it is stopping us now), what if I wish to use the soil in an environmentally sensitive area?

  • says:

    My dad is in a traditional cemetery. My mom and sister are in a lake (cremated), both my wife and I are going to be cremated and our ashes scattered. Respect for a corpse? I've seen caskets go into a grave with a splash because the cemetery was built on swampy ground. That didn't do much for the emotional well-being of those grieving at graveside. In the ground the body is decomposing. Worms and other critters have no sense of respect. They will eventually get at it. Respect for a human body is, in my estimation, a line that funeral directors give to grieving relatives. My wife's mom's ashes sat on our bookshelf for a year before we buried them next to her dad. It's all a matter of belief, and we each have differing beliefs and feelings. Let this be just another choice. It will be interesting to find out how much it will cost, though.

  • says:

    Composting sounds like a good idea. Some will go for it and some won't. It's all a matter of one's belief. Some of our beliefs are rational and some aren't but that's the way the world is. My dad is in a traditional grave; my mom and sister's ashes are in a lake. When my wife and I leave here we are going to be cremated and scattered. At least composting will enable us to be useful even in death.

  • says:

    This article on an alternative to cremation stimulated lots of thinking and discussion. Thanks!

  • says:

    Interesting that the Roman Catholic Church now expresses opposition to composting. Although it might have taken much longer than 30 days, isn't that what happened at residential schools when they put hundreds of children's bodies in unmarked graves in the earth? As to the "immortal souls" represented, the church teaching of that day was probably that the unbaptized went to Limbo and the others to Purgatory. I hope the United Church would have done things differently.

  • says:

    Wow! I've been saying for years that I want to be composted when I die, never thinking it would ever be allowed. "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it." (Ecc 12:7, NRSV) It seems arrogant and sinful to me to have my physical self removed from the intricate, beautiful web of God's creation in which life feeds life, in which earth returns to earth and enriches it, even as spirit lives on with the eternal One spirit that breathes life into all creation. I was taught to say "I believe in the resurrection of the body", but never that God's promise of eternal life depends on the preservation of my physical bones.

  • says:

    Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We return to the earth...what better way than to become the "dirt" (earth).
    We make a connection to the seasons and their work. What falls to the ground becomes the ground and brings life in the spring.

  • says:

    It seems to me that it would make more sense to just bury the body in the cemetery without embalming it so that it can decompose naturally. Same environmental benefit as the article describes, but far less of the human-bodies-for-fertilizer business opportunity.