“Wait, let me get this straight,” my 14-year old said. “Your naked body would just rot on the ground? No thank you!”
This might actually be a teenager’s version of hell on earth, but I wanted my two daughters to learn about more sustainable options for my body while I was healthy and able to plan for my death. We were talking about two choices—donating human remains to a body farm and human composting—which seemed like a scene from CSI or Bones at first glance. But both are better for the climate than flame cremation, which burns fossil fuels, or conventional burial with embalming and a vault, which turns a cemetery into a toxic landfill.
I’d explained to my daughter that a body farm is a research facility for the study of human decomposition. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville became the first body farm in the US in 1987, and the second facility is located at Western Carolina University, less than an hour from the small college campus where I teach environmental education. Research on decomposition at this body farm in North Carolina contributed to developing the process of human composting, legal in Washington State, Colorado, and Oregon. Also known as natural organic reduction, human composting transforms bodies into nutrient-rich soil. Donating human remains to a body farm and human composting are two ways to create life from death, engage family and friends, and make a difference in our climate emergency.
More than a decade ago, my parents died in separate but mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both killed by teen drivers. After my mother’s death at 58, my father shared his detailed plans for a green burial, as he wanted a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the land. After his death, I chose cremation in my own directives for its affordability and convenience. The percentage of people in the US making that same choice is expected to increase from its current rate of 50 percent to 80 percent by 2040. But it’s not a “green” decision: Cremation in this country produces 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
When I first documented my final wishes, I wasn’t aware of the diverse and more sustainable alternatives to cremation or conventional burial. The body farm in Western North Carolina was one stop on my yearlong journey to explore human composting, conservation cemeteries, green burial, water cremation, end-of-life doulas, and home funerals. My goal was to revise my final wishes with climate and community in mind.
“OK, they’re about 30 minutes away,” Christine Bailey told me after glancing at her phone.
“Would it be OK for me to stay?” I asked.
It took some courage to ask for an invitation from this no-nonsense curator of the forensic anthropology facility and lab at Western Carolina University, which is known officially as the Forensic Osteology Research Station, or FOREST. I’d been hoping for the chance to observe a donation to this body farm in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, one of seven such facilities in the US. After texting her supervisor for permission, Professor Bailey, as she’s known to students, nodded to me and then walked down the hall to find the transport service. Within minutes, she rushed back to the lab: “He’s leaking. Put the liners in the cooler!”
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A student named Wesley placed absorbent liners in the cadaver cooler, where the body would stay until relocation to the outdoor facility. There the students and researchers study human decomposition: what happens to a body when it returns to the earth. During a previous visit, I’d heard there’d been a lot of vulture activity that year.
A blue body bag lay on top of the gurney, pushed by two women with Mountain Transport Service. It took five of us—with plastic sleeves on our arms—to lift the bag into the cooler.
The whole process felt pragmatic yet reverential to me.
“When we’re around death every day, it doesn’t mean we don’t respect it,” Bailey told me. “Instead, death just becomes a part of daily life.”
In the lab, we were surrounded by boxes of bones, the remnants of the people whose bodies had been donated. There is no cost except for transporting the body to the facility, which can accept about 17 bodies each year. Unlike donation to medical research, the bodies are not embalmed, as the goal is decomposition, not preservation.
“No one could have told me I’d be so emotionally impacted by the donors,” said Katie Zejdlik, who directs the research facility in collaboration with Bailey.
The lab’s research specifically contributed to the technology behind Katrina Spade’s Recompose, the first of three companies in Washington to offer human composting. The process produces about 1.5 to 2 cubic meters of carbon-sequestering soil—several wheelbarrows' full—which families or friends can take home or donate to regional conservation projects. At Recompose, the cost per person is $5,500, more expensive than basic cremation but less than the average $10,000 for conventional burial with embalming and a vault—and without the serious climate impacts of both.
The first step in human composting begins with the body in a “cradle” surrounded by organic materials, such as wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. For about 30 days, the body remains in a “vessel,” where microbes and heat transform it into compost. During the process, nutrients in the human body support new life in the soil, saving an estimated one metric ton of carbon dioxide per person from entering the atmosphere compared to standard burial or flame cremation.
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Spade began her investigations as a master’s student in Architecture with her thesis, “A place for the urban dead.” Seeking to replicate the process of livestock composting for humans, she invested a decade of research and fundraising into the Urban Death Project, followed by the opening of Recompose in 2020. Her intention was to not only develop a sustainable system but also engage community members in the transformation of their loved one’s body to soil.
Legislation for human composting has been introduced in Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. A similar bill in California received bipartisan support but was shelved in August 2021. In some states, such as New York, the Catholic Church has opposed natural organic reduction, calling the process “more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.” But this religious resistance hasn’t halted the legislation, especially in light of funeral homes overwhelmed with bodies waiting for both cremation and burial during Covid-19.
Another company in Washington, Return Home, provides human composting in a facility that's open to the public, with a 74-person vessel capacity.
“It’s about reclaiming our ability to say goodbye to our loved ones,” said CEO Micah Truman. “There’s a man who comes to sit each morning and brings two cups of coffee, one for his wife in the vessel and one for him. Given the choice, people want to engage, and it makes all the difference in the world.”
During my visit to the FOREST lab at Western Carolina University, Zejdlik emphasized the potential of composting, especially since many people think burial and cremation are their only choices: “Animals in agriculture are composted all the time,” she said. “And if human composting takes off, it could be phenomenal.” She noted the environmental benefits in urban areas with a scarcity of green spaces for burial grounds, where land is a resource that needs conserving.
Human composting isn’t yet available in North Carolina, where I live, but support has grown in a range of states since its legalization in Washington in 2019. In many municipalities, restrictive codes around composting pose the initial obstacles to the relatively new process of natural organic reduction. Yet as soon as human composting became legal in Colorado in September 2021, the Natural Funeral constructed vessels for body composting and began offering the service as an addition to green burial and aquamation, which uses water and lye for cremation instead of flames.
“We’re about to have our fourth person placed in a Chrysalis Vessel,” said Karen van Vuuren, cofounder of the Natural Funeral in Boulder. She explained that they named the vessel after a builder named Chris, who helped construct the container that would transform bodies into soil.
“The first person placed into the vessel was a hard loss,” van Vuuren said, “He was a young person. But the family was able to place handwritten notes on the body and lift him into the vessel to return to the earth.”
In a world where 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, climate action by individuals can feel daunting or ineffective. My end-of-life decisions—in collaboration with my daughters—won’t transform the climate crisis, but I believe in the momentum created by individuals in community, especially when our last best act could create connections between life, death, and earth. Planning for our deaths can engage our family, friends, and communities while nourishing the land, rather than fueling our climate emergency.
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As he cataloged bones in the lab at Western Carolina University, Wesley told me: “A raccoon can decompose on the road, and no one freaks out. But we have a messed-up attitude about human death in our society. Did you know research from this lab was used to help legalize human composting in Washington State?”
I nodded. These two worlds—bones in a lab in the mountains of Western North Carolina and soil in a human composting facility in the Pacific Northwest—felt connected as sustainable choices for life after death. Decomposition and composting are the most basic metaphors for endings and resurrection, a practical choice in a warming world in need of new beginnings.
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