Body composting, a “green” alternative to burial and cremation

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In a suburban warehouse nestled between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling company in Denver, Colo., Seth Viddal is faced with life and death.

He and one of his employees have built a “vessel” that they hope will usher in an era of more environmentally friendly mortuary science.

“It’s a natural process where the body is brought down to an elementary level over a short period of time,” said Viddal, likening the practice to composting leftover food in the yard.

Known as body composting, the process reduces human remains through a natural process of organic reduction.

“It’s the same process but done with a human body inside a ship and, in our case, in a controlled environment,” Mr. Viddal said.

On September 7, Colorado became the second US state after Washington to allow composting of the human body. Oregon, further south, will allow the practice from July 2022.

“A little more natural”

AJ Killeen, 40, is one of the people who has expressed interest in having their bodies composted when they die.

AJ Killeen has expressed interest in having his body composted upon his death. (

Photo AP / Thomas Peipert

)

“They will control the humidity. They will control the soil amendments, and I hope some worms and some fungi find a good home in me for a few months.”

Mr Killeen said his concern for the environment played a big part in his consideration of the option.

Flame cremation burns fossil fuels that can contribute to climate change, and the process also releases toxic mercury-laden fumes into the atmosphere.

Traditional burial takes up space in a cemetery which will use additional resources to keep the plot constantly watered and mowed.

A rack of metal containers where human bodies are kept for the first month of a two month composition process
Human bodies are kept in metal containers for the first month of a two-month composting process. (

AP Photo / Ted S. Warren

)

Mr. Killeen is among a growing number of people who are considering more natural funeral options and he believes the option will become more accepted once people get over the “ick factor”.

In Washington, the three companies licensed to compost human remains have processed at least 85 bodies since the law came into effect in May last year, and more than 900 more have signed up for the service as the Natural funerals have become more popular.

Mr Viddal began building a prototype ship in an industrial estate shortly after the bipartisan bill was enacted.

“An exciting ecological option”

The insulated wooden crate is approximately two meters long, three feet wide and deep, covered with waterproof roofing material and packed with wood chips and straw.

Two large spool wheels at each end allow it to roll across the ground, providing the oxygenation, agitation, and absorption needed to compost a body.

A man with a very long beard and without hair leans over an open structure like a coffin
Seth Viddal is the co-owner of The Natural Funeral in Colorado. (

Photo AP / Thomas Peipert

)

Mr Viddal calls the process an “exciting green option”. And in death he also sees life.

“Composting itself is a very living function and it’s done by living organisms,” he said.

After about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is filtered for medical devices such as prostheses, pacemakers, or joint replacements.

The remaining large bones are then pulverized and returned to the tank for another three months of composting. The teeth are removed to avoid mercury contamination in the fillings.

The vessel must reach 55 degrees Celsius for 72 continuous hours to kill bacteria and pathogens.

Man works on nearly finished human body composting vessel closing it with blackboard
Employee Chris Olachia works on a nearly completed body composting vessel. (

Photo AP / Thomas Peipert

)

The high temperature occurs naturally during the decomposition of the body in a closed box.

In six months, the body, wood chips and straw will turn into enough dirt to fill the bed of a pickup truck.

Family members can let the soil spread in their gardens, but Colorado law prohibits selling it and using it commercially to grow food for human consumption. It also allows only licensed funeral homes and crematoria to compost human bodies.

“It accomplishes the conversion of the body into a very beneficial substance – soil, earth,” said Mr. Viddal, who plans to build more than 50 bodily compost containers.

A bed in the middle of a log cabin with the sun shining through soft draped curtains
Colorado is the second state after Washington to legalize composting of the human body.(

Photo AP / Thomas Peipert

)

Mr. Viddal’s company, The Natural Funeral, charges $ 7,900 ($ 10,880) for body composting, compared to $ 2,200 for flame cremation, and he notes that a traditional burial and service in the area can cost over $ 10,000. .

The company has yet to compost a body, but several people have signed up and paid for the service.

The Colorado Catholic Conference, a group of bishops aimed at shaping public policy, opposed the bill, saying bodily composting “does not promote human dignity.”

Some rabbis are also against body composting because they say it violates Jewish religious law, while other opponents fear there is inadequate research into the potential for contamination of food sources.

Micah Truman, CEO and Founder of Return Home South of Seattle, manages a 1,068 square meter facility that includes 74 vessels.

So far, his company has composted 16 bodies in what he describes as an “extremely precise scientific operation” that only takes 60 days.

Mr Truman said that because the composting option was so new, “it’s really about changing hearts and minds right now.”

ABC / son


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