The Catholic News Agency (CNA) is reporting on the law which was signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom last week and will take effect in 2027. It adds California to a short list of other states that allow the composting of human remains.
The process, also known as natural organic reduction, or NOR, involves placing the human body into a reusable container that is filled with straw, alfalfa and other materials, thus allowing microbes in the body to break down the organic matter. All inorganic matter such as pacemakers and artificial joints are removed for recycling. Bone fragments are removed and pulverized much as they are after cremation. What’s left after 30-45 days is about a cubic yard of soil which a family can take home or donate to a green space. As this site suggests, people can also keep a small amount to spread in their yard or keep in a planter.
Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA that the use of a body composting method originally developed for farm animals creates an “unfortunate spiritual, emotional, and psychological distancing from the deceased.” In addition, she said, the process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”
Proponents of the law claim that human composting is more eco-friendly than traditional burial methods because cemeteries take up land space and caskets waste natural resources. They also cite toxic chemicals in the embalming process that endanger funeral service workers and contaminate soil. Cremation is also a concern because it releases carbon dioxide and other chemicals into the atmosphere.
Other so-called eco-friendly burial methods are gaining traction among the population. For example, Eternal Reefs involve mixing human cremains and concrete into orbs which are then placed in the sea to restore reefs and become undersea habitats.
Space burial is another option. It involves being cremated and then sending some of the ashes into space. As Livescience explains, this is a journey that is “more symbolic than practical” because of the high cost of spaceflight and the fact that only one to seven grams of remains can be launched. One company offers “postmortem flights” that allow the cremated remains to orbit the Earth and then eventually burn up in the atmosphere on the return journey. Those who wish for their remains to be buried in space can have themselves launched into deep space or to the moon from anywhere from $10K to $12.5K.
Mummification is also making a comeback. An organization called Summum: Modern Mummification and Transference offers to mummify both humans and pets for prices starting at $63,000. It involves wrapping the body in a shroud that is embroidered with symbols or messages pertaining to one’s religious beliefs and then being placed in a hermetically sealed capsule case. The case is then placed into a sarcophagus, known as a Mummiform, or metal casket.
The company, which is described as “a gnostic, Christianity-based faith” founded in 1975 by Corky “Ra” (Nowell) is said to be somewhere between science fiction and new age mysticism. It believes the mummification process allows the soul to transcend more smoothly from this life but, at the same time, is “primed for cloning when science catches up with their beliefs.”
Plastination is similar to mummification and involves replacing bodily fluids with liquid plastics after death. The same process is used to preserve bodies which are used for educational purposes in medical schools and anatomy labs. The process was made famous by the popular “Body Worlds” exhibit by Gunther von Hagens’ which features real human specimens whose bodies are either splayed to reveal the organs, or posed in action such as playing basketball or running. When seen as a variation of donating organs to science, proponents say it's also cheaper than a funeral and serves a better purpose than becoming food for worms.
If none of the above is palatable, there’s always the freeze-dry option. Known as Promession, Swedish marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak invented a process that involves immersing the corpse in liquid nitrogen, which makes it brittle. The body is then vibrated to break it apart and the water removed in a special vacuum chamber. A separator filters out any mercury fillings or implants and the powdered remains are laid to rest in a shallow grave which allows oxygen and water from the environment to eventually turn them into compost.
It's easy to see why none of the above options are acceptable to Christianity which believes in treating the body with the respect due to the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Church prefers intact burial.
In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s October 2016 instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, Catholics are advised that while cremation “is not prohibited,” the Church “continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
The same document stresses that ashes are not to be scattered or kept in the home but instead must be “laid to rest in a sacred place,” such as in a cemetery or church.
This is because “by burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
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