Dust or Humus? The Advent of Human Composting

Christians have just completed Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday with the tracing of ashen crosses on foreheads and the formula “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent leads to Easter, where Christians are reminded they are more than dust—their mortal shells formed from “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 2:7)—being destined to transfiguration and immortality.

This Christian perspective may soon be competing in Washington State with the vision “from human to humus.”

The state’s legislature has passed, and Governor (and presidential wannabe) Jay Inslee seems on the verge of signing, a bill allowing human “recomposting.” Techniques include putting a corpse in a sack with organic material (think alfalfa or mushrooms) for about a month to accelerate decomposition, then heating the remains to kill off any pathogens. The resulting “organic material” can be recycled as plant food. Another technique, “alkaline hydrolysis,” uses potassium hydroxide and water to dissolve the body into fluid. “Eco-death revolutionary” Katrina Spade (whose “public benefit corporation” could earn $5,500 per human mulching) is part of a broader “good death” movement whose goal is to reduce the human ecological footprint by returning the deceased not to dust but peat moss.

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While environmental consciousness can be laudatory, the cultural transformation underlying “recomposting” is far from a Christian Paschal viewpoint. The Christian perspective on dead bodies is one of reverence: this flesh had, after all, been a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19). While decomposition is natural and seen to be part of the punishment of sin (whose wages are death), the human role in the process has always been passive. Humans reflected on decay as the way of all flesh.

Spade et al. see death and decay not as an expression of some truth about humanity and mortality. For them, it’s a technical problem: man is seen as just another (and probably on balance negative) species on the planet, and mortal decay as a process to be managed to mitigate its environmental impact while putting the leftovers to utilitarian use. “Recomposition” yields about two wheelbarrows full of compost for your flower bed; one English town is already using the warm fluids from hydrolysis to heat its community pool.

This model of body as part of the waste management process reinforces the gnostic dualism already present in so many parts of Western culture: from treating the incapacitated and comatose as victims of some perverse alchemy that renders them “vegetables” existing in a “vegetative state,” to reducing parenthood to social bonds independent of any part in engendering or bearing children. The anthropology of “recomposition” erases any distinctiveness of the human as divine viceroy over creation; far from being stewards over the earth, humans represent an obtrusive carbon footprint whose diminishment becomes some kind of quasi-moral imperative.

What message, indeed, are we sending when our secular theology treats human flesh and remains as recyclables to nourish some Disneyesque “circle of life?” Where once upon a time a cemetery was “hallowed ground,” is it now to be the site of the transitory composting of one’s pansies temporary hallowedness? Is “hallowedness” now an annual or biennial?  It doesn’t seem perennial (unless used in the begonia bed). Or will employing your remains as tree fertilizer (by molding your valuable organic material into a slow-release arboreal spike) give new meaning to the “sacred oak?” The sacrality of the human body is being exchanged for a Gaia-theology of the earth in which the human—far from exercising dominion over that earth—is expected to sacrifice for planetary rejuvenation and nourishment.

David Brooks recently opined in The New York Times that one reason contemporary society may be becoming increasingly unglued and disjointed is its lack of rituals. The impact of “recomposting” and similar notions on our death culture is a whole separate essay. We should take note, however, that invisibility seems to be its common thread: the disappearing experience of being with someone who is dying has been joined by the disappearance of bodies and of wakes. Funerals that interrupt our highly scheduled lives yield to “memorial services” scheduled at the convenience of “rememberers” (“mourners” seems not in keeping with the times). Soon, with the disappearance of graves, going to the cemetery will rank up with such antiquarian pursuits as writing a letter on stationery or getting up to change the channel.

Christians mark Easter because of Christ’s victory over death. But Easter also gives the Christian a model to follow: like their Master, who overcame the horror of the grave by hallowing it, Christians traditionally were laid to rest in—not reduced to food for—the earth. The disappearance of the body (also evident in the growing popularity of cremation) is coupled with the begrudging of earth for the burial of human remains.

Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, is about an avaricious Russian who heard he could acquire as much land in Asia as he could encircle with a ditch in one day (provided he returned to the spot where he began). He dies of heart failure just as he reaches his starting point, after carving out an impressive and expansive acreage. His servant buries him on the spot, observing a man “needs” about two meters of land.

Today, we resent giving him even that much.

 (Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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