Body composting a ‘green’ alternative to burial, cremation

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Seth Vidal compares his eco-friendly burial process to composting from food scraps

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In a suburban Denver warehouse between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling business, Seth Vidal is dealing with life and death.

He and one of his employees have built a “vessel” they hope will usher in a more environmentally friendly era of mortuary science that involves the natural biological reduction of human remains, also known as body compost. Is known.

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“It’s a natural process where the body is returned to a fundamental level in a short period of time,” said Viddal, who compared the practice to backyard composting of food scraps and yard waste. “It’s the same process but done with a human body inside a vessel, and in our case, in a controlled environment.”

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On September 7, Colorado became the second state after Washington to allow composting of the human body. Oregon will allow the practice to begin next July. In Washington, three businesses licensed to compost human remains have turned at least 85 bodies since the law went into effect in May 2020, and more than 900 people have signed up for the service as natural funerals. has become more popular.

Vidal, who co-owns The Natural Funeral in Lafayette, lobbied the Colorado legislature for the alternative and began building a prototype vessel in an industrial area shortly after the bipartisan bill was signed into law.

Based on a design being used in Washington, the insulated wood box is about 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, lined with waterproof roofing material and filled with wood chips and straw. Two large spool wheels at either end allow it to swing across the floor, providing the oxygen, movement and absorption the body needs to compost.

Vidal calls the process an “exciting ecological choice”, and in death, he also sees life.

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“Composting is a very living act in itself and it is done by living organisms. … There are billions of microorganisms, living things in our digestive system and just contained in our bodies. And that’s when one of our lives comes to an end. , then the life of those microbes ends. Not stopped,” he said.

After about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is filtered for medical devices such as prosthetics, pacemakers or joint replacements. The remaining large bones are then pulverized and returned to the pot for three months after composting. The teeth are removed to prevent contamination by mercury in fillings.

The vessel must reach 131 °F (55 °C) for 72 consecutive hours to kill any bacteria and pathogens. The body in an enclosed box naturally has a higher temperature during its breakdown.

In six months, the body, wood chips and straw will turn into enough soil to fill the bed of a pickup truck. Family members can keep the soil to disperse in their yard, but Colorado law forbids selling it and using it commercially to grow food for human consumption and only licensed funeral homes and crematoriums allow humans. Allows the body to compost.

“It spurs the transformation of the body into a very beneficial substance — clay, earth,” said Vidal, who envisions building more than 50 body composting vessels.

Naturals Funeral charges $7,900 for body composting, compared to $2,200 for flame cremation, and Vidal notes that a traditional burial and service in the Denver area can run well north of $10,000. . The company hasn’t composted any bodies yet, but many have signed up and paid for the service.

AJ Killeen, 40, of Boulder, has already expressed interest in composting his body after his death, even though it is relatively young.

After a car accident a few years ago, a doctor discovered that Killeen had heart disease. This got Killeen wondering what would happen to her body after she died, and composting seemed like a natural fit.

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“It’s going to happen anyway, right? I mean, we’re all basically going to turn to dust. So it’s a little more natural,” he said. “They’re going to control the moisture. They’re going to control the soil amendment and hopefully some insects and some mushrooms will find a good home in me for a few months. And, you know, on the other end of it, I’ll just be a few bags of shit.”

Killeen, who manages commercial real estate, said his concern for the environment played a big 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. The traditional burial takes place in a cemetery which would use additional resources to continually water the plot and mow.

“I always joke that I hope I end up on Trash Day if it’s easier for my family,” said Killeen, who composts food scraps and yard waste through the city’s collection program.

Killeen is one of a growing number of people considering more natural funeral options, especially since the pandemic began, and she thinks the option will become more acceptable once the “ick factor” is over.

The Colorado Catholic Conference, a group of bishops intended to shield public policy, opposed the bill, saying body composting “does not promote human dignity.” Some rabbis are also against making manure from the body because they say it violates Jewish religious law. Other opponents are concerned that there is not enough research on whether compost contaminates soil and that there is no way to prevent people from using it in home vegetable gardens.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it if they take it all home,” said Colorado Funeral Directors Association board member Stacey Kleinman. He helped enact the law, but the group’s stance is neutral.

Even with the opposition, several states are considering alternatives as Americans become more open to after-life options.

While many were burying loved ones killed by the coronavirus, 21% said the pandemic has changed how they want to dispose of their bodies, according to a Choice Mutual Insurance Agency poll of 1,500 Americans this summer. Traditional burial and cremation remained at the fore, but 11% said they would opt for burial without a coffin involving natural decomposition. Only 4% said they would choose that option in a similar survey conducted in 2020.

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Choice Mutual, which specializes in burial insurance, didn’t specifically ask about body composting, but the survey highlights a growing interest in more natural and eco-friendly options.

Micah Truman, CEO and founder of Return Home, south of Seattle, runs the 11,500-square-foot facility that includes 74 ships. So far, his company has processed 16 bodies in what he describes as an “extremely precise scientific operation” that took only 60 days.

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Truman said that because the composting option is so new, “it’s really just a matter of changing hearts and minds right now.” But he’s surprised by how many young people are interested, including someone who recently signed up their 8-year-old.

Truman said, “Our youth will teach us how to die better. It’s been really powerful for us.” “I think what has happened is that the younger generation really understands that we have to make sure that our earth can stay full.”


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