Dust to dust

The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Inna_liapko/Shutterstock
The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Dust to dust

A bill would legalize “natural organic reduction” of human bodies.
May 3, 2021

When New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, aiming to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, the state was lauded as a national leader on climate change

But sustainability has many facets, including how we handle our dead, and New York could once again be a nationwide leader on environmental issues if it becomes one of the first states to legalize human composting for “green burials.” 

A bill in the state Legislature sponsored by Assembly Member Amy Paulin of Westchester and state Sen. Leroy Comrie of Queens, both Democrats, would legalize a process by which human remains would go through “natural organic reduction.” The process takes about four weeks from start to finish and essentially just speeds up the natural decomposition process. The body is placed in a special chamber along with wood chips, alfalfa and other materials, and for 30 days the chamber rotates to encourage decomposition. By the end, what you’re left with is basically dirt – human compost. “It's not that different from burying underground,” Paulin said. “It's a decomposed human body.”

The difference is that it’s totally natural, circumventing the use of resource-intensive caskets and eliminating the chemical-heavy embalming process.

The idea of human composting certainly may seem morbid at first. When environmental activists approached her about sponsoring the legislation last year, “it was a process for me when I first heard about it,” Paulin said. “‘You're doing what? How?’” But it didn’t take her too long to wrap her head around the idea and become a proponent. “Until we figure out how to live forever, we’re all going to have a life cycle where we’re going to be burying loved ones,” Paulin said. “And we want to do that in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Once the composting process is completed, the soil is subject to the same rules that govern what someone can do with cremated remains. The family can take the soil home with them and use it for purposes like gardening if they so choose. They could also have the soil buried or scattered at a cemetery. If the family chooses not to take the soil back, it could be used for environmental sustainability projects like rehabilitating brownfields.

Most people don’t think about after-death practices, but how society processes their dead does have impacts on the environment. “(For) many people, it's not on the forefront of their minds after somebody passes, but the traditional processes of either putting someone in the ground or cremating them are very harmful to the environment,” said Rachel Patterson, legislative and climate associate at Environmental Advocates NY. She noted first and foremost, the building of caskets takes a lot of resources. According to research, the United States uses 30 million feet of wood, over 100,000 tons of steel and over 1.6 million tons of concrete every year just to make something designed to be seen once before getting buried. That’s not to mention the hundreds of thousands of gallons of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals used in the embalming process, which leak into the soil as the body decomposes and may contaminate nearby groundwater.

Cremation is not a substantially better option for the environmentally conscious. Each cremation requires 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. The company Recompose, a national leader in natural organic reduction that has been pushing for its legalization in Washington, estimates that each body that is composted as opposed to cremated prevents a metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, thanks to a much less energy-intensive process and the body’s carbon into soil. “This is, in our opinion, a much better option,” Patterson said of human composting.

Natural organic reduction is just the latest way to reduce one’s environmental impact after death. In New York, there are eight certified green cemeteries where someone can choose to get buried in a more natural way without embalming, in a biodegradable casket or funeral shroud and often without a traditional tombstone. At Greensprings Natural Cemetery Reserve in the Southern Tier town of Newfield, one is buried in a natural field surrounded by forest, with the option of a flat stone as a grave marker. From afar, the land doesn’t even look like a cemetery. Some more traditional cemeteries, such as Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester, offer a plot of land within their grounds for such burials. 

The idea of cemeteries as beautiful green spaces isn’t new either. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which are both nearly 200 years old, are examples of “rural cemeteries” that acted as America’s first public parks. Popular in the mid-19th Century, they offered a respite from crowded city life at a time when such spaces were not open to the public. But as actual parks began to arise and the cost of maintaining the grounds grew, the more utilitarian style “lawn cemeteries” common today arose in the early 20th Century. 

Cemeteries take up increasing amounts of land in a state where it is often scarce. Queens, where many neighborhoods are starved for public parks, has over a dozen cemeteries. The dead population far outnumbers the borough’s live residents. Meanwhile, every borough of New York City is considered unaffordable when comparing its median household income to home prices, thanks to high land costs and a shortage of new housing construction. 

Over a decade ago, when New York proposed legislation to legalize a more environmentally friendly way to cremate that involved dissolving the body, it received notable pushback and was dubbed “Hannibal Lecter’s bill.” It never passed. 

Today, lawmakers and advocates say they haven’t received much pushback about the human composting bill, with a notable exception: the New York State Catholic Conference, a lobbying group representing the state’s bishops and the eight dioceses in New York, has come out in opposition to the bill, saying in a memo natural organic reduction “fails to sufficiently respect the dignity due the deceased.” In an email to City & State, the Catholic Conference’s interim executive director Dennis Poust wouldn’t comment on the group’s specific lobbying efforts, but he said, “lawmakers are quite aware of our position and we will continue to ensure they remain so.” State Sen. Leroy Comrie, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, said while he understands why some may oppose natural organic reduction, it’s still something he would like to see passed. “It’s not a mandate… it’s just giving people an option that are interested in a more organic way of dealing with someone after they’ve passed,” Comrie said. He added that it’s also more cost effective than traditional burials – the Washington-based Recompose charges $5,500 for its services while funerals can cost upwards of $10,000.

So far, only Washington state has legalized the process of natural organic reduction for humans in 2019, with the first such funeral home – Recompose – opened for business in January this year. Colorado is poised to become the second state to legalize it after its state legislature passed a bill last month that now awaits the governor’s signature. Oregon and California both have bills in their state legislatures that are expected to pass some time this year as well. 

In New York, the legislation to legalize human composting has been moving quietly as the state continues to deal with the pandemic. In the Assembly, it has already passed through two committees and currently is sitting on the floor calendar, meaning it’s ready to be voted on by the entire chamber. In the state Senate, the bill is on the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee agenda on Tuesday, when it’s expected to get moved through, bringing it one step closer to passing the full chamber. Both bill sponsors as well as advocates are hopeful that it can get passed before the end of session in June, but politicos can probably expect a lively floor debate if it actually comes to a vote.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of Environmental Advocates NY.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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