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Bury me not: A plea for Illinois to allow 'human composting'

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, June 12, 2019  |  Article  |  Eric Zorn

When my time comes, as it inevitably will, I don’t want to be sealed in a box underground or reduced to grainy, useless ashes in a crematorium.


I want to return to nature, that which has sustained and nourished me and all my ancestors and that which, with luck, will sustain and nourish future generations.


I want to decay into topsoil and rich loamy earth where I can return the favor to the flowers, the plants, the bushes and trees that have fed me in so many ways for so long. I want to, almost literally, push up daisies.


And so I want Illinois to enact legislation similar to the recently signed law in Washington state that allows for “recomposition,” also called “natural organic reduction,” as an alternative to burial and cremation.


The process is informally known as “human composting,” a phrase that squicks some people out for how it conjures up an image of tossing a corpse into the backyard bin with leaves, lawn clippings and food scraps.


But the reality is that it’s no less gross — and considerably more eco-friendly — than filling a corpse with formaldehyde or incinerating it.


Human composting is based on a method already used for disposing of livestock. The body is placed in a reusable hexagonal steel container with wood chips, alfalfa and straw to accelerate decomposition. Heating the container to 131 degrees kills off any dangerous pathogens.


In about a month, everything — including bones and teeth — has been turned into about two wheelbarrows worth of odorless, nutrient-rich soil that can be distributed in a garden bed, packed around the base of a tree or otherwise scattered on private property.


“By converting human remains into soil, we minimize waste, avoid polluting groundwater with embalming fluid, and prevent the emissions of CO2 from cremation and from the manufacturing of caskets, headstones, and grave liners,” says the promotional material for Recompose, a company that promoted the legislation in Washington and will offer “natural organic reduction” for roughly $5,000 when the process becomes legal in May 2020.


Other “green” methods of dispatching human remains are gaining currency. After actor Luke Perry died in March, it was widely reported that he was buried in a “mushroom suit,” an increasingly popular garment that hastens decomposition underground. But Washington is believed to be the first jurisdiction in the world to OK human composting to hasten the process still further.


The law passed without a whole lot of fuss — 80-16 in the House and 36-11 in the Senate — and was signed May 21 by Gov. Jay Inslee, one of the raft of announced Democratic presidential hopefuls.


Opposition seems to be rooted in religious concerns.


“The body is sacred and must be treated with all due dignity and respect,” wrote John Horvat II in “Human Composting: The Ultimate Denial of the Soul,” a recent column in Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication. Recomposition “fits into a … worldview where everything is reduced to matter in constant transformation,” he wrote.


To which I say yes. Exactly. That happens to be my view.


Horvat argued that “the body is not just a shell or husk that can be cast aside once the soul has departed” because “the body that is buried belongs to the person who will one day be resurrected and will once again enjoy possession of it.”


To which I say fine. OK. That happens to be his view and the view of many others, I’m sure. And I’ll argue to my last breath against anyone who tries to compel him or anyone else to render loved ones into wheelbarrows of useful dirt.


But I will not stand for the idea that his or anyone else’s religious notions about death, dignity, the soul and respect for corpses should prevent me or those who feel as I do from participating in a ecologically sound rite after death.


Folksinger Lee Hays expressed my parting wish well in the lyrics to his 1981 composition “In Dead Earnest”:


Put me in the compost pile


To decompose me for a while.


Worms, water, sun will have their way,

Returning me to common clay


All that I am will feed the trees


And little fishes in the seas.


Now, let’s get this done in Illinois. My time gets closer and closer every day. As does yours.