Do you compost dead people?
If not, you’re not as green as Katrina Spade who asked The New York Times “who doesn’t want to be laid to rest in alfalfa?”
Probably lots of people. But that hasn’t stopped Spade, director of the Urban Death Project, and Cheryl Johnston, a forensic anthropologist at Western Carolina University, from trying to use dead bodies as compost for plant growth.
“Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds,” Spade told the Times. “Our bodies have nutrients. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”
Despite health and moral concerns about using dead bodies as compost, Spade’s proposal has excited Seattle environmentalists and some scientists who say it would be a way to bury the dead in an eco-friendly way and fight global warming. Apparently, cremation releases too many carbon dioxide emissions for some activists.
So how would this even work? Spade, an architect by trade, designed a three-story facility vault, called “the core,” where about 30 dead people can be brought and composted. There would be a short ceremony before bodies were placed into the vault and over “several weeks, each body would move down the core until the first stage of composting was complete.”
After that, the human compost would be “cured.” Spade says each body, along with wood chips, sawdust and other biodegradable materials would make enough compost to fill a three-foot cube. Once the compost is ready, family members “could collect some of the compost to use as they saw fit, perhaps in their garden or to plant a tree,” reports the Times.
Spade touts that each composting would cost about $2,500 — only a fraction of what it costs to get buried in a coffin in a cemetery.
“Beyond the environmental benefits to composting humans, she believes there is a spiritual one: connecting death to the cycle of nature will help people face their own mortality and bring comfort to the bereaved,” the Times reports, adding that “[c]onventional burial is anything but natural.”
Spade’s idea has gotten some criticism and also faces some legal barriers. The Times notes some states have “legalized alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes known as water cremation, in which bodies are dissolved in a heated mix of water and lye.”
Many other states, however, say bodies must be “buried, entombed, cremated or donated to science.” There are also health concerns because “pathogens, like the prions related to mad cow disease, can survive composting, and livestock that have died from certain diseases are banned from composting.”
Public health experts have advised that livestock compost not be used in fruits and fields where vegetables are grown. Some have even warned that heavy metal contamination could occur because of the fact that so many people get dental fillings.
Spade and Johnston are already testing their theory out, composting 12 bodies in the open air — one dead 78-year-old woman had been laying in wood chips for about three weeks. So far, the two have been unsuccessful in their composting endeavors.
“Nothing much has happened,” said Johnston. “I’m not surprised. I mean, I’d be jumping for joy if it was reading 120 degrees.”
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