How the dead have a part to play in reaching Net Zero

4 Mins read

In his book How Bad Are Bananas? Mike Berners-Lee concludes that the most environmental thing you can do is to die.

Alhough there is truth to that conclusion, our deceased bodies can harm the planet, and there is a growing concern that to hit net zero, the conversation needs to move towards a greener after-death option. 

At the time of writing, 12,052 people have died in the UK so far this year but despite the constant high demand, the burial options available fail to keep up with the environmental advances elsewhere.

In light of The Law Commission’s forthcoming debate, A Modern Framework for Disposing of the Dead and the Church of England discussing human composting as a viable alternative – it is clear that people want greener funeral options. 

Casket burial and cremation are mainly the options offered to bereaved families, with 80% choosing the latter. This largely comes down to the price as casket burial often costs up to three times more than its counter option.

Regardless, both have an immense environmental toll: burials take up land and, according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, cemetery sites can pollute the groundwater – as the body and coffin decays, they produce fluids that are released into the underlying aquifers which are usually used as drinking supply and for food and beverage production.

Cycle of human composting. Body with shroud over goes into the comporting vessel. It is then turned into soil that can be used to plant greenery.
Cycle of human comporting [Recompose]

Cremation, often thought of as the more sustainable option, releases combustion gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. The last option, and the most sustainable funeral option on the market is a natural burial, which does not include formaldehyde, embalming fluid, or caskets.

Although a step in the right direction, some argue that we need to take it one step further and introduce human composting. Howard Williams, professor of archaeology at Chester University, who specialises in the last period where cremation was practised before the modern era believes human composting to be “an important potential shift, one of a series of potential new technologies for disposing of the dead,” he says. 

Today, human composting or ‘natural organic reduction’ (NOR) is legal in Sweden and six US states and poses a revolutionary yet basic after-death option. It turns human remains into soil by placing the body in a vessel with materials like alfalfa, wood chips and bacteria that gradually break down the body over a 30–to-50-day period. According to Axios, Recompose (the first human-composting funeral home in the US) has composted more than 200 deceased and more than 1,200 are signed up for this service. 

For human composting to become an option in the UK, conversations about death need to be normalised because pushing it away may be doing more harm than good. Stephen Byfield, co-founder of Horizon crematorium, has observed just how unprepared people are to make funeral decisions when losing a loved one. “They don’t know the processes they have to go through, they don’t understand what their options are,” he says.

Abi Lacey, a special educational needs teacher, believes that the reason death is not talked about is because of how unpleasant it can be but highlights the importance of pushing through regardless: “If your family is confident in what you want after you’ve died, it takes a lot of the ambiguity out of it and there is no ‘Oh would she like these flowers or would she want that?’ No, she wanted this and that’s it and we can go grieve now.”  

SOPHIE Sophia, an artist from Suffolk suggests death care may not be discussed properly because it does not impact us in our daily lives: “Rather than actually someone taking the lead and going ‘this needs to be looked at’ and it’s almost as if it hasn’t become important enough because it’s not a consideration in daily life,” she says.

She is hopeful human composting will be legalised in the UK: “I don’t want to be chucked in a furnace by the crematorium and I don’t want to become toxins,” SOPHIE says. 

Daniel Hennessy, who works in advertising, also found himself uncertain of his options following his mother’s death: “It’s not a subject that you ever think about until you have to, so when we were faced with the limited choice of burial or cremation, neither felt right.” 

Consequently after being unsatisfied with the options available he started researching human composting which led him to start a campaign to legalise human composting in the UK which, with more than 2,300 signatures. 

The Recompose team which are five people stands in front of Array of Composting Vessels
The Recompose team standing in front of number of Composting Vessels [Recompose]

Stephen is eager to offer composting as an alternative and emphasise that neither of the options currently available are pleasant: “The cremator fired up with a diseased body inside is a hot environment. The idea of resummation alkaline water death, which is supposedly a gentler way of disposing of the diseased where you are bathed in a body of warm water. Frankly they’re putting you in an alkaline bath and dissolving you and then that water is flushed into the drain so your Aunty Mary goes into the drain,” he says.

This is what Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose aims to change: to bring beauty back into death. 

For Abi it is not sustainability which appeals but rather questions like: “Why shouldn’t I just decompose? Why shouldn’t I just do what my body is built to do? There’s something really comforting about the fact that the Recompose facility gives you the option to take them away and go back to the earth,” she says. 

Stephen believes the reason this is legal in some US states is because of Katrina’s continuous effort to lobby state by state, building prototypes and getting investments where she can. “We need someone to rally us up and go to the front and run the drums for composting,” Stephan says.

There is a lot of confusion but it is evident from Daniel’s petition that people are interested in this form of death care, one of them being SOPHIE: “Human composting and the steps and rituals towards it I feel it brings in a completion, a recognition, a holding, a healing space that is not available,” she says. 

Daniel adds that “because of the campaign I have found myself discussing the topic way more than I thought I would, but it’s very rare that I find any opposition to the idea of human composting. Even if the person doesn’t want the option for themselves they are supportive of making the option available for others.”

It is time for the funeral industry to keep up with the rest of society.

Featured image courtesy of Recompose.