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California to legalize burial by 'human composting'

ImageGen (67).jpeg
Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A container of compost produced from human remains is shown at right, next to a container of straw and other material used in the process, which takes place at Recompose, a company that composts human remains into soil, Sept. 15, 2021, in Kent, Wash.

A new law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom offers California residents another option besides burying or cremating a loved one.

Assembly Bill 351, written by Assembly member Cristina Garcia (D—Bell Gardens), allows natural organic reduction facilities to be established in California. These facilities process human remains into soil — informally known as “human composting.”

Seattle-based company Recompose offers natural organic reduction services in the Pacific Northwest. Morgan Yarborough, a funeral director with the company, told CapRadio that the process offers both a meaningful and environmentally-friendly way to honor the deceased.

"When someone dies, they are placed inside one of our vessels, so it's a chamber that encloses the person,” Yarborough said. “And they're placed in this vessel with a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa and straw. And so they are cocooned in that, if you will, and then that transformation takes place inside of that vessel in about 30 days."

The vessels are made of steel and encompassed by a hexagonal frame, according to Recompose. They are stacked together in a shape that “looks like honeycomb,” Yarborough said.

Once the process is complete, the compost is removed from the vessel and allowed to cure for several weeks, she said. Family members can then use the human compost for gardening, or they can donate it to be spread in conservation areas.

The cremation process, which has risen in demand in recent years according to a 2021 report from the National Funeral Directors Association, requires the use of fossil fuels to process human remains. The incineration process can release particulate matter like sulfur dioxide, mercury and other heavy metals into the atmosphere.

Traditional burials can pose environmental issues, too — the embalming process uses chemicals like arsenic and aluminum which can leach into the soil after remains have been buried, according to the United States Geological Survey. Cemetery lawn upkeep is heavily reliant on water, a resource that’s increasingly scarce as extreme drought continues to plague California.

“Wildfires, extreme drought, record heat waves remind us that climate change is real and we must do everything we can to reduce methane and CO2 emissions,” Garcia, the bill’s author, said in a prepared statement. “This is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere and will actually capture CO2 in our soil and trees.”

The adoption of a natural organic reduction process has not gone without criticism — representatives of the Catholic Church in California have said the process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”

Kathleen Domingo, the Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference, said the process also can create a distance between family and the deceased, in a statement to SFGate:

"[Natural organic reduction] uses essentially the same process as a home gardening composting system," she said. "Using these same methods for the 'transformation' of human remains can create an unfortunate spiritual, emotional and psychological distancing from the deceased."

Yarborough said in her experience, however, it’s been the opposite.

“I've never seen people connect to a process of death care like I have with natural organic reduction, especially when they see that soil after a couple of months, they're able to come up to it, to touch it and to know that that was their person,” she said. “It's a beautiful and truly spiritual moment.”

Four states currently allow natural organic reduction: Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Vermont. Yarborough said that the organization receives remains from all over the nation, and calls from people worldwide who “find what we're doing to be very meaningful. They want to know more and they want to support us.”

The new law takes effect in 2027.

Steve Milne contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 CapRadio