The worlds first human composting facility

Alternative funeral arrangement

By: Kumar Punithavel

Kumar Punithavel

One of the most trying moments in a person’s life is when a dear and near person dies. Here is a person whom you loved hugged and caressed lying senseless, will never come back to greet you again. Humanity has faced this situation of death and used various methods to rid the dead body. Disposing of the human remains has evolved with time.

But, always losing a dear one, is a very sad and difficult one to cope up with. There were always two options mainly used to close the chapter of the life of a loved one. One is to bury and the other is to cremate, the dead. Some believed there was an afterlife, or for other reasons, buried their dead in a location close to where they had lived so their survivor could bring offerings, such as food and beverages on days of importance to remember the dead.

This thought is the underlying logic for people to believe that the souls of the departed went to the underworld, believing the nether land to be underground. As a result of this the dead were buried in the ground so they could have easy access to their next home! When burials were done in hot and arid regions it necessitated mummification of the dead to prevent them from rotting fast and bringing disease to the living. This belief of an afterlife made the grievers to bury wealth etc. with the dead body.

The second common way of dealing with the dead body was cremation. Here too, rituals were introduced guaranteeing safe passage to the high above. One of such, specially among Hindus, was to incinerate the remains on a funeral pyre with full respects provided by the relatives and friends. In recent times gas powered incinerators have replaced the use of wood logs. However, in many cultures, burial remained the most favoured method of disposal of the remains of the departed. In big cities like London and New York where the land is scarce and expensive, cremation is becoming more and more acceptable practice.

The third common method is what is called Sky burial. In this case human remains are placed on a lonely mountain top or a very tall tower leaving the body to decompose while exposed to elements, or to be eaten by scavenging birds, especially carrion birds. One must accept that in this method wastage is minimal. Instead of fire or germs and worms eating the body, least living birds benefit by eating it.

In the case of cremation the remains of a human is combust at temperatures as high as 900 degrees Celsius, and it takes about an hour to complete the incineration process. An average body weighing 68 Kg, which contains 65% water, will require 100 MJ of thermal energy using up to 3 cubic meters of natural gas, or 3 liters of fuel oil. In addition to harmless compounds such as water vapour, emissions include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride gas, hydrogen fluoride, mercury vapour etc. These being averse to the environment.

Experiments test the effectiveness and safety of human composting, which may soon be an alternative to burial or cremation in Washington state. (Image Courtesy: Science News)

Today a new trend is slowly finding its way into the world which look promising. That is to decompose the dead human remains to sod. On Feb 16th, 2020, Laura Sanders on ‘Science news’ had written a very interesting article about six dead bodies that were allowed to decompose among wood chips and other organic material. Composting animal carcasses is not something new. The prime requirement is to mix with wooden chips to provide the carbon and a decent supply of water, else high interior temperature will dry it up.  Using this environmentally friendly method is only logical.

Washington has become the first state to legalize the practice of human composting. Though it does not allow people to be buried on private land, under the new law, the remains reduced by natural organic reduction can be spread on private land with owner’s permission.

A decomposing recipe includes wood chips, alfalfa, and straw grass. The body is placed in a closed vessel kept at a temperature around 55 to 60 degrees centigrade and has a rotating device. The bones break down as the body decomposes. In a month’s time each body will yield up to 1.5 to 2 cubic yards of bone riddled soil-like material which meets EPA standards. It can be made available to the relatives who can spread it in their gardens or use it to plant trees, which is another environmentally friendly act.

It’s not a difficult task to compose human cadaver.  The microbes naturally found on the skin, in the body and on the carbon rich plant material will kick start the process. Embalming has a negative effect in the process of decomposition; however, it does not stop it completely. With sensor monitoring and keeping the cylinder rotating ensures a complete decomposition in a month. The energy required to maintain the temperature of the cylinder holding the cadaver and to rotate it periodically is minimal and could be easily met by solar power.

Religion hand in hand with the funeral industry, has billions in stake. In today’s world, cremation and burial are in vogue. Conventional burial involves injecting the body with formaldehyde and placing it in a tomb. But in the case of decomposition, it is going back to the natural process in a dignified manner. 

It is, but our duty to give our near and dear one’s instructions on what to do with the remains, either encroach a piece of land permanently as ours and feed worms and germs, or as final act in the world to add pollution. Of course, one has the more dignified way to do the exit with an environmentally friendly act to mother earth which had nurtured and protected the persons through the whole life.

(This is an edited version of the article published in the December 2021 issue of Monsoon Journal)