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Study Suggests Turning Human Bodies into Compost is Environmentally Friendly

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Compost as a burial option

As a prelude to a series of articles on composting and what it does for plant growth, here’s a recent study that suggests turning human bodies into compost is environmentally friendly and thereby merits further investigation.

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For Argument’s Sake

Composting as a means to return nutrients to the soil through the death and decay of previously living matter is good gardening practice.

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However, in a more human corporeal sense, human composting ties in deeper as the foundation of existentialistic beliefs with respect to the “circle of life” and all that it entails. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” is a recurring phrase in any movie with a burial scene; however, in spite of how often it is repeated, its actual meaning and origins are less clear.

Most would agree that the “dust to dust” part is based on religious burial services dating centuries ago where adaptations from the Book of Genesis is quoted referring to God’s admonitions to Adam as he is being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

In the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread, till thou return onto the ground; for out it wast thou taken: for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” —Genesis 3:11, King James version.

The “…for out it was thou taken” refers to the earlier passage in Genesis describing the creation of man by God. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” —Genesis 2:7, King James version.

Therefore, depending on your beliefs, “dust to dust” appears to make some potential rational sense or argument toward composting human remains. The origins of the phrasing of “ashes to ashes” however; is less clear and is not clearly biblically referenced to in the same manner as “dust to dust,” nor biblically mandated. In fact, some religions forbid cremation based on what is taught in the Bible..

An excerpt from the St. George Greek Orthodox Church

"...In the Old Testament, earth burial was the norm for treating departed persons. Cremation was used only as punishment and humiliation for those who engaged in grievous, sinful acts as recorded in Joshua 7:15; Leviticus 21:9; 20:14. Cremation was also an instrument of God’s wrath as He destroyed certain peoples by fire as recorded in Numbers 11:1-3; 16:35; Joshua 7:15,24-26; 2Kings 1:10-12 and famously the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24.

The Lord says through the prophet Amos, “For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath, because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king” (2:1-2). This is argued as a clear denunciation of cremation.

For now, at least one theory behind the inclusion of “ashes to ashes” is that it comes from early poetry as a poetic device using meter to create a linguistic sound pattern that gives poetry its rhythmical and melodious sound; and not as a religious rite or as acceptance.

What Nutrients Are In a Body?

So, what is to be gained nutrient-wise from a decomposed human body? Sources put it that nearly 99% of the body is composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, calcium, nitrogen and phosphorous, with only about 0.85% contributing potassium, sulfur, chlorine, sodium and magnesium. The rest is just trace amounts of many other elements.

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However, it’s not just the nutrients that a decomposing body can provide back to the Earth that is the reason behind human composting, but the fact that while just in life a human body has a substantial negative environmental impact, so does a dead body where embalming relies on large quantities of toxic fluids such as formaldehyde (Over four million gallons of embalming fluid are used in the U.S. annually), and cremation throws off a significant amount of carbon dioxide (as much CO2 as burning 800,000 barrels of oil).

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The Study About the NOR of Human Remains

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, soil scientist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs of Washington State University in Pullman described a pilot experiment involving composting human bodies, referred to as “natural organic reduction” (NOR) of human remains.

In the study six bodies were placed into vessels that contained some plant material and were routinely rotated to provide optimal conditions for decomposition. After about four to seven weeks later, microbes in the material had reduced the bodies to skeletons along with about 1.5 to 2 cubic yards of soil-like compost material.

The conclusion of the study was that NOR is a sustainable burial option that benefits the environment as opposed to current burial and cremation practices. “…NOR creates a stable organic soil-like material that can be land applied. The process of NOR and land application can return our bodily nutrients to the earth, promote growth of land plants, and thereby sequester carbon into soil both immediately and over the long term.”

The study states that he legalization of natural organic reduction for human remains can be effectively applied to increase options in funerary care, which in fact in May of 2019, Washington State did so and became the first government in the world to legalize NOR.

However, and this is a BIG HOWEVER, just because a solution appears practical and doable, does that mean we should do it? Or will? Often solving a problem with one solution only creates more problems---science is filled with many examples. Case in point: Many religions have strict rules and views about the sanctity of the body and its value as evidence of creation and a Creator—namely, God.

According to the Orthodox Church of America, "...the vast majority of Orthodox would contend that cremation for whatever reason, and regardless of its detachment from pagan thought or ritual, in every instance denies the value of the human body and of material creation in general. Hence, it is to be avoided as an option." It goes without saying that this would include composting a body as well.

There are other foreseeable problems as well. For example, bones do not decompose as quickly or thoroughly as flesh does. What do we do about the bones?Consider also, where the composted remains are to eventually be placed? In a park? In a sanctuary? In someone's backyard?! What would this do to property values let alone demonstrate an insensitivity and a disregard toward others living in your community? Human composting may appear reasonable to a degree, but not to such a degree that we should embrace the idea, let alone the practice.

If the primary reason for composting humans is really due to that the environmental impact of current burial practices are so harmful, perhaps it is time to put our scientific efforts into lessening that impact rather than adopt a novel alternative that trades one problem for another.

If you have an opinion about using NOR as a funerary option, please add your comments in the comment section below and tell us what you think.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image: Courtesy of Pixabay

References:

1. “Turning human bodies into compost works, a small trial suggests” ScienceNews February 16, 2020

2. “The environmental impact of death, and the science of sustainable alternatives” L. Carpenter-Boggs. American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting. February 16, 2020. Seattle, Washington.

3. "Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes? A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation"
by Alvin J. Schmidt, Regina Orthodox Press 2005.

4. "Cremation" The Orthodox Church of America.

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