Two wheelbarrows full — that’s how much soil a composted human body creates. In California, it could soon be legal for people to be transformed into soil after death.
Only three after-death options are available now in California: burial and cremation — by fire or water. But a bill moving through the Legislature would legalize “natural organic reduction,” or the composting of human remains, adding a greener funerary option to the mix.
In 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize the process. And this year, the dominoes kept falling: Colorado legalized it in May, and Oregon followed suit in June. Next year, New York could do the same.
Since the pandemic’s onset, conversation has started about the need for alternatives to cremation. Amid the peak of deaths from COVID-19 in January, Los Angeles County was cremating so many bodies that local air quality regulators temporarily lifted cremation limits meant to minimize air pollution.
Burial isn’t so green either — it leaches chemicals into the ground and takes up scarce land.
If each Californian opted to be composted after death, supporters of the innovation argue, the carbon saved would be enough to power 225,000 homes for a year — or more than half the homes in San Francisco.
The only formal opposition so far comes from the Catholic church.
The California Catholic Conference did not respond to CalMatters’ interview requests, but told Religion News Service last year that it opposed an earlier version of the bill.
“We believe that the ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence for them,” spokesperson Steve Pehanich said at the time.
But the lawmaker pushing the bill, Assembly member Cristina Garcia, was raised Catholic and represents a heavily Catholic district in southeast Los Angeles County. She said she understands that turning into soil after death isn’t everyone’s preference.
Garcia said she will always advocate for her constituents’ rights to practice their religions freely and safely.
“But it’s my duty not to impose my religion on other folks. My duty is to allow individuals to have choices to do what’s best for them,” she said.
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, who serves as an advisory scientist for Recompose, has studied soil for 30 years.
In testimony to the Senate Health Committee in July, the scientist said that “the finished material is soil-like and unrecognizable visually, chemically or microbiologically as human remains…. and (the soil) can safely and selectively nourish the land and plants and forests.”
Composting human remains would be a new procedure for the state to regulate. The first concern lawmakers are grappling with: how human-sourced soil should be legally treated.
While California still has not finalized regulations yet, it’s possible it could also follow suit with some of Colorado’s rules: It made it illegal to use human-sourced soil to grow food that people eat.
In other words: you could use it to grow a flower garden, but not your veggies.
Recompose, based near Seattle, started human composting in January 2021. So far, The privately-held company has returned more than 50 bodies back to the earth. And it is scaling up fast, hoping to open a larger Seattle location in spring 2022. And if the bill passes, Recompose hopes to be open in Southern California by July 2023.
In Washington, the soil of a loved one can be sent to a conservation forest, given back to the family, or a combination of both options. Swenson, the Recompose spokesperson, said: “We’re hopeful we can replicate something like that in California.”
The above comes from an August 9th story by Cal Matters.