Human composting: America's newest end-of-life option

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When it comes to our end-of-life, Americans have two main choices: burial or cremation.

Both take a toll on the environment.

Indeed, as population climbs, many worry that our traditional forms of funeral are no longer sustainable for the planet. Conventional burials use vast amounts of hardwood for coffins, green space for plots and embalming chemicals that are known to pollute groundwater. Meanwhile, cremation pumps millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

The concern has caused a new, more eco-friendly solution to emerge: human composting.

Also called recomposition or "natural organic reduction," human composting has been legal in Sweden since 2005. Last year, Washington became the first state to pass a law allowing this form of "green" funeral, and Colorado has plans to introduce a similar bill this year.

While many states - Tennessee included - do not directly ban human composting, the lack of reference in legislature creates ambiguity, requiring additional laws to define what is and isn't allowed.

To help you better understand human composting, here is a breakdown, if you will, of America's newest end-of-life option.

How it works

Typically, a body would take months, even years, to fully decompose. But in human composting, the process is controlled and accelerated so that decomposition of all soft tissue takes place in about 30 days, with bones taking up to two months.

In 2021, the world's first human-composting facility, named Recompose, is slated to open in Seattle. Founded by Katrina Spade, Recompose will use a patent-pending approach: First, an unembalmed body is placed in a cylindrical vessel on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw grass. Then, it is slowly rotated while air is pumped into the vessel. The added oxygen helps increase microbial activity, which, in turn, generates heat.

In pilot studies, this heat reached 131 degrees F or higher, effectively destroying all disease-causing organisms.

Thirty days later, the body's soft tissue has become a cubic yard of fertile soil. Bones are then typically removed by technicians.

How much it costs

At Recompose, human composting plus a funeral ceremony will cost around $5,500. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2019, the national median cost of a burial plus ceremony was $7,640. The national median cost of cremation plus ceremony was $5,150.

Other eco-friendly funerals we may start seeing more of

* Water cremation is a process in which a body is dunked in a pressurized chamber of water and lye, then heated to 200-300 degrees F. Within 6-12 hours, flesh, blood and muscle is effectively liquefied, leaving behind only bones. With a carbon footprint 1/10th of traditional cremation, aquamation, as it is also known, is legal in 18 states - Tennessee not included.

* Mushroom suit burials began making headlines last year after it was announced that late actor Luke Perry had been buried in one. The suit is made out of organic cotton and laced with mushroom spores. The idea is that the fungi help decompose the body and return nutrients to Earth.

In Tennessee, state law does not require that a body be embalmed or buried in a coffin. Moreover, it does not prohibit burials on private property, so a mushroom suit is, in theory, a viable option. However, we recommend you check local zoning laws before planning your own backyard burial.