A Greener Alternative To Burial Or Cremation


Historically, humans have had limited options regarding what we can do with bodies post-death: burial, cremation, or donation to research facilities. With every option, the time loved ones get with the body is relatively short. And each one leaves a hefty carbon footprint in its wake. 

Over the past several years, newer alternatives have emerged, though most still start with cremation. Cremated remains can be turned into diamonds, glass sculptures, and even vinyl records. Biodegradable options have been growing in popularity, too. 

A conceptual art installation by Italian designers Francesco D’Angelo and Adriano Del Ferro inspired the idea of human burial in tree pods, but the pods are still a work in progress. Until recently, the only other “green” option was placing cremated remains in a biodegradable urn. 

Human composting facilities like Return Home are here to change that.

How Human Composting Works

Eleanor Cummins describes Return Home’s human composting process in a recent article in The Verge. Human composting, or natural organic reduction (NOR), essentially mimics what would happen if a human body was buried without a coffin. 

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At Return Home’s facility in Washington, the body is washed and dressed in biodegradable clothing. Then, the remains are placed in a large vessel filled with organic materials like alfalfa, straw, and sawdust. After that, nature does what it does best (warning: it’s a little gross). 

The enzymes in our body that help us digest food will later digest us when we die. As they do their thing, the enzymes release byproducts rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Human composting facilities catalyze the process with oxygen and heat and use biofilters to eliminate the signature smell of decomposition. After aerobic digestion, the only solid material left is medical devices and bones. 

First, medical devices are picked out of the compost. Then, the bones and soil are broken down into smaller fragments in a machine similar to a cremulator. The material is returned to the composting vessels, where microbes can continue breaking down the smaller, more porous bone fragments. Similar to garden compost, the material is occasionally rotated.

The entire process takes about two months from start to finish. In the end, each family receives about 400 pounds of nutrient-enriched, fertile soil.

The Benefits Of Human Composting

Human composting might seem a little creepy compared to the sterility of a traditional coffin-and-vault burial or cremation. But it offers many benefits, from emotional to environmental. Human composting takes time, and that time can help loved ones process their grief in a slower, gentler way. 

In facilities like Return Home, family and friends can visit their loved ones at any point in the composting process. Funeral ceremonies are still a viable option, too. Return Home even invites loved ones to add flowers and notes written in biodegradable ink to the composting vessels for the deceased. 

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Additionally, human composting is eco-friendly in more ways than one. Not only are human remains turned into nutrient-rich soil that can be used to nourish a garden, houseplant, or grow a tree, but NOR also avoids the toxic chemicals, tons of steel and concrete, and several hundred pounds of crematory carbon emissions required for traditional burial methods. 

It’s more cost-effective, too. At Return Home, NOR costs about $5,500 with a laying-in ceremony. According to Cummins’ reporting, that’s about twice as much as the average cremation but half the cost of a funeral and vault burial.

Is Human Composting A Viable Option For You And Yours?

Compared to the $18 billion traditional funeral industry, human composting is still relatively small. NOR is currently only legal in Washington, California, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont, with New York possibly coming soon. Religious beliefs and general distaste have stunted the NOR industry’s growth thus far, but it’s clear that interest in the human composting method is growing. 

Because frankly, it doesn’t get more “full circle of life.” It’s an excellent option for people for whom nature was an important part of their lives, particularly if the surviving loved ones shared that love of the outdoors.

As separated from nature as society and daily life can make us feel, human beings are organic material, just like any other flora or fauna on the planet. Aside from donating one’s body to medical or scientific research, NOR is one of the best ways to ensure you or your loved ones’ remains can offer something of use to the earth one final time. 

Death is a sensitive topic, and everyone is entitled to grieve and process it in a way they deem fit. However, if the traditional methods of handling human remains don’t feel quite right, human composting might be the gentle, eco-friendly alternative you’ve been looking for.

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