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Washington state lawmakers approve human corpse composting (qz.com)
172 points by prostoalex 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 171 comments

This is a huge step in the right direction. Despite anyone's opinions on death and burial traditions, the reality is that the most common practices are not eco friendly.

In the U.S. each year we bury 20m ft of hardwood, 1.6m tons of concrete and 4.3m gallons of embalming fluid. [1]

An average cremation takes 28 gallons of fuel. [1]

Also, just my own opinion based on observation, why do cemeteries get all the best real estate?? Dead people can't enjoy that view.

[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-your-death-affects-cl_b_6....

Cemeteries get the best real estate because they can wait it out the longest. When a town is formed the cemeteries are usually in the outskirts. As the town grows these outskirts become the suburbs which then become part of the urban core.

> An average cremation takes 28 gallons of fuel.

An average American has a carbon footprint of about 20 tons per year, so the ~540 pounds emitted from cremation (stat from that article) is a drop in the bucket.

Not to be flip about carbon use, but this is people's final wishes we're talking about. Death is a big deal.


It also isn't strictly about the dead, but rather about the living who get peace of mind from knowing that their wishes will be respected upon their death.

Not to mention the mental wellbeing of their friends and family.

I think this comes from purely emotional perception of, well, life. And pure emotions are bad advisers more often than not. Rational view would be, no matter what religion (or lack thereof) - body after death is just a pile of fast decomposing organic material, nothing important neither for living nor deceased.

I have much more respect for some eastern religions like Zoroastrians or some Buddhists in Tibet/high Nepal who chop the bodies of their close ones and leave it to predators. That's a true expression of proper belief in their religions.

People can't stand sight of their close one decomposing (apart from some remote tribes who have mummies/skulls of ancestors around the house), some would even be properly traumatized, but yet there is some obscure need to have the same biological matter confined somewhere where they can come and feel 'connected' again. Wouldn't a photo/3D model/hologram of the person achieve the same?

I mean, I wouldn't care less if somebody brings some flowers to my grave or lights candles. Just remember me when convenient, some good experiences and I will be glad

> Rational view would be, no matter what religion (or lack thereof)

I think you have to decide on rational or religion. Religion is based on beliefs, not on rationality (whether they happen to match up or not)

For example eastern orthodox church has very specific rules about preserving the body and still (I think?) doesn't allow cremation.

> apart from some remote tribes

You may want to check on the bone washing tradition in Latin America. That's far from "remote tribes".

> An average cremation takes 28 gallons of fuel.

That's not a whole lot. The fuel cost of everyone flying or driving out to the funeral probably dwarfs it.

Of course, we could make cremation more efficient if we didn't want to generate ashes for people to take home, but that's a pretty cheap cost for the emotional value.

Why are people still embalmed? Is it a throwback from ancient Egyptian culture? It's absurd.

I wonder if it's because embalming is a product you can sell someone with a large profit margin because the market price of body embalming is murky at best.

I did paid biz research on the funeral industry in 2010 on summer break from my mba for an Irish company looking to extend into the US focused on funeral for Irish people.

There was a huge amount of consolidation going on as mostly family funeral parlors were being bought up by a few scaled players.

There is a huge amount of money tied up in funerals. Looking at the generational switchover, with boomers presumedly wanting traditional burials, grave sites and granite headstones—-not yet at its peak.

I wonder if the funeral industry will tip around the same time some have suggested the housing market will.

Traditionally you'd get the body into the ground in three days max. Nowadays that's not happening unless (like some religions) you make it a point of principle. With bureaucracy and far-flung families it frequently takes weeks.

For viewings. If the viewing isn't done in the 24h post-death, the body has decayed noticibly: it's unsightly and smells bad.

(take with a grain of salt, my only source is 10 episodes of Six Feet Under)

I have to admit that I don't "get" the concept of the viewing (in most cases, apart from identification of course). My grandma died a few years back and the body was available for viewings. Unlike most of my family I didn't go.

My last memory of grandma was us all together as a family at my aunt's house on Christmas day, her sitting there in an armchair beaming at how proud she was of her family and giving out hugs and kisses to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She died a few weeks afterwards of heart failure.

It's one of my fondest memories and I'm sure she'd rather be remembered that way than as a cold, lifeless body on a stainless steel slab.

> I have to admit that I don't "get" the concept of the viewing (in most cases, apart from identification of course). My grandma died a few years back and the body was available for viewings. Unlike most of my family I didn't go.

> My last memory of grandma was us all together as a family at my aunt's house on Christmas day, her sitting there in an armchair beaming at how proud she was of her family and giving out hugs and kisses to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She died a few weeks afterwards of heart failure.

> It's one of my fondest memories and I'm sure she'd rather be remembered that way than as a cold, lifeless body on a stainless steel slab.

For some, the memories are not enough, and to touch the skin of a loved one one last time (even if there is no warmth behind it) before their body if forever removed from the world, is a special moment.

24 hours seems a little fast. I’ve encountered bodies that have sat for 2-3 days unnoticed (estimated) inside of their house, in the summer, and it’s not too terrible of a smell. If anything, you’d start to see bloating and discoloration, but not enough decay will happen within 24hours that would result in a closed casket viewing. Also, once they stick ‘em in the freezer at the morgue, you’re stalling that decay tremendously — at least long enough to make it to the funeral, which is sometimes up to a week later.

Also, to talk about the parents point on prime real estate, i’m not sure what current rates in other states for a plot but where i’m at, you’re looking at >$1,500/plot for one casket.

For the purpose of viewing, refrigeration prior to the event is preferable to embalming.

Surely it doesn’t take more than 24 hours to find someone to identify most dead bodies? They don’t need to be viewed after they’ve been identified.

> Surely it doesn’t take more than 24 hours to find someone to identify most dead bodies? They don’t need to be viewed after they’ve been identified.

Bodies don't need to be viewed just as a sunset does not need to be admired. But people choose to do both activities all the same.

> They don’t need to be viewed after they’ve been identified.

Says who? Do you have information about the grieving process being easier if you don't view?

> Do you have information about the grieving process being easier if you don't view?

I never claimed that - you've imagined that - so why would I have information on it?

Slow the decay for funerals.

Corpse viewing.

> Dead people can't enjoy that view.

It's nice to have spaces set aside for quiet contemplation on death and the passage of time

> Also, just my own opinion based on observation, why do cemeteries get all the best real estate?? Dead people can't enjoy that view.

Old cemeteries are de facto parks in cities that grow up around them. They're quite nice and a decent use of land in areas that don't have the sort of pressing housing needs that SFBA has.

In Munich, I lived near the "Old Northern Cemetery", where the last person was buried in 1944, but I only recall seeing graves there that are far older than that. It is now officially considered a park, and people use it for jogging or just lying there to relax: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/Alter_No...

It's quite a weird feeling, looking at those gravestones (sometimes quite beautiful and impressive, to be honest), and knowing that, for almost all of them, no one is alive anymore that could have actually known them.

> people use it for jogging

Is it not considered offensive to jog in a cemetery?

Hmm, why? As I said, the cemetery has not been in use for a very long time now. Long enough that the corpses have probably rotten away completely, and nobody knows the people who laid there anymore. So I don't think anybody is going there for grieving.

The Wikipedia article itself mentions jogging as one of the uses, so I'm not making it up (at the same time it mentions "with due respect", and personally I also don't think jogging is "disrespectful"): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alter_Nordfriedhof_(Munich)#Pr...

Not everywhere, and real estate is precious. Near by we have a Chinese cemetery, complete with coloured neon lights, karaoke machines, outdoor fitness centre, and jogging track going through the tombstones. You don't want to get bored in the afterlife.

I've always wondered about this. I've seen people jogging in cemeteries before, and it seems...weird.

If one keeps off the headstones they should not engender the wrath of the residents.

San Francisco evicted all the dead around 1900: https://www.7x7.com/the-dark-history-of-san-franciscos-cemet...

As other comments mention, Colma was the place where many of those cemeteries were moved to.

> the best real estate

Have you not seen what happens when you build on top of burial grounds?


I agree I always figured if the circumstances of my death allowed for it I would just go on a hike deep into the mountains, lay against a rock and die. I am not a huge fan of cremation or the traditional casket approach.

As space costs lower, one extremely predictable industry/business will be 'casket pods.' You get ejected in space at escape velocity left to wander until entering the orbit of who knows what, along with a natural cryogenic preservation. Kind of interesting to imagine sci fi scenarios such as one of these pods being the exogenesis that drove the seeding of Earth (or Mars as it may have been).

As programmers, we often discount the human element in the social context. It turns out that funerals are a very widespread and in some people's opinions a very necessary part of life.

Unfortunately, many of these practices change awfully slowly and arguing with people over their rites and traditions is a pointless (and somewhat insensitive) exercise.

You'll find on the African continent that graveyards are ridiculously large and elaborate (esp. in Southern Africa). My only guess is that these things improve with better education and in turn, that whole process is inevitably slow.

I can't say much for the US, but certainly it has the resources to be more innovative.

When cemeteries where first created they were generally put on relatively unproductive hilly ground outside of the city or town. Not sure why you think they got all the best real estate?

Who doesn't want an acreage in the hills just outside of town?

Also, many towns and cities have grown, so what used to be a small hill outside of town is now, unsurprisingly, prime real estate.

>Who doesn't want an acreage in the hills just outside of town?

People who want to farm their land or build structures to conduct commerce.

Most cemeteries are open to the public so if they are in a city they are like parks and are very nice to have. I guess my comment is that the land a cemeteries takes up is not likely to be any more prime than any other land in a city.

That's actually horrible because the contaminated water runs down the hill and into the town.

Half of Colma seems to be graveyards, but I bet they could fill it to the brim with 4 story housing units and not put a dent on bay area demand... always boggled my mind.

Do you want poltergeists? Because this is how you get poltergeists.

It's more than half, actually (IIRC upwards of 70%). Colma was specifically incorporated as a necropolis, and the dead outnumber the living by something like 1000-to-1.

Sure, maybe a bunch of cemetaries ain't the most efficient use of space, but it's certainly a really cool use of space. I live in close proximity to it, and appreciate it as part of the not-quite-green-belt between Daly City and South San Francisco.

Yup, that’s right. For those that like podcasts there’s a 99% Invisible episode about it - https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-modern-necropolis...

And for those that like videos, that link includes a Tom Scott YouTube video as well.

Speaking of cemeteries...

At the end of this March I was in Stockholm. One of the most unusual "highlights" (I consciously choose to visit this place for its nature) of the trip was the breathtaking woodland cemetery called Skogskyrkogården[1], located just outside the city.

I spent 3 hours of walking and reading there. It's one of the most beautiful and serene nature places I've ever been to. When you enter, there are no graves in sight — a sign that nature is the central focus, not the graves. These are mainly located in the depths of the woodland.

It's a UNESCO World Heritage site; this was their justification[2]:

Outstanding Universal Value:

Skogskyrkogården, located south of central Stockholm, Sweden, is an outstanding early 20th century cemetery. Its design blends vegetation and architectural elements, taking advantage of irregularities in the site to create a landscape that is finely adapted to its function. [...] Asplund and Lewerentz’s cemetery design evokes a more primitive imagery. The intervention of footpaths, meandering freely through the woodland, is minimal. Graves are laid out without excessive alignment or regimentation within the forest. Asplund and Lewerentz’s sources were not “high” architecture or landscape design but rather ancient and medieval Nordic burial archetypes.

Skogskyrkogården is an outstanding example of the successful application of the 20th-century concept of architecture wholly integrated into its environment: the chapels and other buildings there would lose much of their meaning if isolated from the landscape for which they were conceived. The Woodland Chapel is intimately integrated into its setting, whilst the impact of the later group of chapels is heightened by the use of their landscape as a background. In both cases, the architecture has a quality of austerity that is appropriate to its function and does not compete with the landscape. The success with which Asplund and Lewerentz integrated natural with artistic and architectural values gives this cemetery an outstanding independent cultural value. Considered to be of the highest artistic quality, Skogskyrkogården has had a profound influence on cemetery design in many countries of the world.

[1] https://skogskyrkogarden.stockholm.se/in-english/architectur...

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/558

My family's been in the cemetery industry for about 60 years, and your last observation is rather interesting from my perspective. You're absolutely right that cemeteries aren't for the dead. They're for the living, some people do take a degree of comfort--maybe even satisfaction--in knowing where they'll be buried. I've actually seen people bring a blanket out and sit for hours at their future gravesite, odd though that may have seemed to my younger self.

In my anecdotal experience, most modern/currently operating cemeteries aren't really situated in the best real estate. But most landscaping maintenance and beautification practices do tend to make them appear more inviting/relaxing/beautiful than just the land itself would seem to be on its own. In that sense, they're not all that different from parks; the name "memorial park" (cemeteries with bronze or sometimes stone markers flush to the ground) and the ideas behind the philosophy pretty explicitly evoke that image.

Older, historical cemeteries are a different matter altogether. As another commenter pointed out, some of them were originally located outside the urban core but still close enough for relatively easy access to transportation. Church cemeteries were often located immediately outside the church. Some were never really envisioned to amount to anything, but expanded slowly over time. The same passage of time turned their locations into valuable, prime real estate. And the same landscaping and greenery that most cemeteries try to cultivate, along with the sheer weight of history on their grounds, can turn them into wonderful places for the community to visit. Many of the monuments and private mausoleums are stunning pieces of architecture and workmanship, and the dark Quincy granite that you'll often find is instantly recognizable. Even more so than their natural beauty, these places tell a part of our history, good and bad. Not every cemetery was preserved like that, of course; others are forgotten entirely and re-discovered during construction projects. Or they can be damaged by natural disasters, such as when a thousand caskets floated away after Hurricane Katrina and had to be tracked down and reinterred.

Sometimes, that land is too appealing or valuable, which can lead to cemeteries being moved to another location in their entirely. It's such a royal pain in the ass, though, it's very rare nowadays unless there's no alternative such as with major infrastructure projects and the like, with many states having laws that protect cemeteries from arbitrary eminent domain and redevelopment, and requiring court orders for each individual grave, efforts to track down next of kin, etc. My grandfather's company was hired to help move a cemetery for a University of Pittsburgh stadium back in the late 50s or early 60s, if I recall correctly. Years earlier, it was much more common to move cemeteries and reinter the remains as cities grew. Sometimes happening more than once, which can give genealogists fits at times.

As for the environmental impact, you can look into alkaline hydrolysis as a cremation alternative, at least in the 14 states it's currently legal in.[0] It's much more environmentally friendly (no mercury pollution, for example), save for the wastewater it produces (around 300 gallons per body).

0. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/alkaline-hydrolysis-biocrema...

I use 28 gallons of fuel in a week. Not going to be super concerned with my cremation.

While I understand the merit of the energy efficiency implications mentioned in the article, I actually disagree with this method on grounds of the potential spread/development of infectious disease.

The vast majority of cultures have rites for taking care of the dead in a tidy manner. This is partly out of respect and partly for cleanliness purposes. Corpses that aren’t embalmed or cremated are hotbeds for disease. Having them naturally degrade seems like a great way for new human-specific evolutions in disease to grow and spread.

>Corpses that aren’t embalmed or cremated are hotbeds for disease.

Not really. Corpses don't really gain the ability to transmit diseases if the disease wasn't already there. For those with infectious diseases that are of concern for human to human transmission, many locations have laws already in place. In Alberta, my province, we refer to these as Schedule 1 and Schedule 2 diseases and have public health law regarding handling of the deceased that fall into these categories [1].

1 - http://www.qp.alberta.ca/documents/Regs/2008_135.pdf

> Corpses that aren’t embalmed or cremated are hotbeds for disease

You're really going to have to provide a citation for that.

On our way to choosing a natural eco-friendly burial, we looked at quite a few locations. There was one common feature - none allowed embalming. Nor is there any legal requirement for embalming, and very few (regular) burial grounds require it. It's a convenience for undertakers (and a nice way to bump the price implying it's an expected procedure).

It seems very unlikely that would be the case if your assertion were true.

Jessica Mitford book "The American Way of Death" from 1963 is describe here https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/death/fond-farewells She documented the undertakers bumping up the prices as you describe (to put it mildly).

I don't however know if the undertaker lobby has since managed to get embalmment mandatory / carteling with the graveyards

They aren't just tossing the bodies on a compost pile. It's a very specific process that involves a lot of oxygen and high temperatures (60C-70C). Pathogens do not survive if it's done properly.

>if it's done properly...

And this is the reason that composting never took hold in antiquity. For the ancients, who may not have had as much scientific knowledge, burial and cremation could be done improperly, and still provide a sanitary means of disposal of the deceased. You try to compost the deceased in an ancient society lacking the proper techniques, facilities, and medical care, and I'd imagine you'd just be bringing a whole world of problems down on your village or town.

> And this is the reason that composting never took hold in antiquity

I rather doubt that is they reason why in the past we didn't decide to throw our dead in what is essentially a rubbish heap...

In most big cities people just throw their dead pets in the trash. Morbid, but true. I don't see why human bodies would really be all that different.

I don't know why but I laughed too hard at the thought of someone dumping their grandma in the trash out back, feet sticking up and all. Then the garbage man coming and being annoyed at the pointy toes but not really all dismayed.

"Please keep in mind we have a 50 lbs weight limit per bag - our backs and your loved ones thank you. Also, titanium is recyclable, so place all knees and hips into the appropriate bins."

You're not up to date on the rules.

Per the FTC, embalming is not required for burial in any state. A lot of cemeteries require it, but Google "green burial" for more info on places that don't.


If I can't afford to be frozen, then I would like to be sealed in clear epoxy with LED lights and put on display. That should be quite sanitary while not emitting much Co2.

> I would like to be sealed in clear epoxy

According to [1], taking a 40yr old male, the body would be 180cm x 25cm x 70cm (805, 236, 506+378 extrapolated). You'd probably want at least 2.5cm of epoxy border giving you 185cm x 30cm x 75cm or 0.42m^3. Assuming the body takes up about 0.067m^3[2], you're left with 0.35m^3 or 21350in^3. [3] says multiply that by 0.0163 to get 350 litres which then translates to kg of resin. Using GlassCast 50, at 32kg for £450 inc vat, you'd be looking at ~£4900.

(you could also just paint over a few thin layers instead but it wouldn't look as impressive.)

(also you'd need to dry the body out first because the resin would react badly with the moisture.)

[1] https://msis.jsc.nasa.gov/sections/section03.htm [2] https://www.researchgate.net/post/Volume_of_average_human_bo... [3] https://www.easycomposites.co.uk/#!/resin-gel-silicone-adhes...

That's a decent price. I would be the gift that keeps on giving :-) Being frozen is about $300k.

Embalming is forbidden in Islam. Corpses are buried directly after ritual cleaning.

But I tend to agree that composting is a bit... strange.

The western cultural expectation of spending a lot of money on embalming, then dressing the dead in fancy expensive clothing and putting them in a $5000 ornate wood coffin which will immediately go into the ground to rot is perverse. It has created economic incentives on the part of funeral services corporations to extract as much money from a grieving family as possible.

This is basically it. Particularly in the US where a burial has become astonishingly crass and perverse.

The size of the plot and headstone. The common use of heavyweight steel for coffins that can delay decomposition even longer. Concrete grave linings. Cremation is no better from an impact perspective.

I think they may be aiming for corpses that hang around as long as ancient Egypt achieved. :)

> Particularly in the US where a burial has become astonishingly crass and perverse.

Ever been to cemeteries in Paris? Giant monuments, incredibly ornate graves.. The US is far more modest by comparison.

You mean the 2 or 3 hundred year old ones? Victorians were often crass too. I meant in the current era.

I agree that there is a financial incentive in the funeral industry. But...

In general, humanity has buried and burned people with expensive objects to show reverence or recognize status. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc. It's kind of a tradition to waste a bunch of money on the dead!

If it were all transparent and above-board, and people knew what they were paying for and why, I'd agree. But that's not really the case. My father died a few years ago, and it was obvious that the funeral home staff relies on you being in a compromised emotional state, such that you'll just say yes to anything and not question the price.

Jewish law prohibits embalming, too. And tradition calls for a plain casket, usually pine, unlined, and with no metal parts (wooden pegs hold it together.)

What is the difference between “composting” and “buried directly without preservative”? I am fairly certain it amounts to much the same thing.

It doesn’t. Composting and burying leaves for example aren’t the same thing.

Composting provides extra oxygen and whatever other steps are necessary to accelerate the decomposition process.

A buried body can last many years, especially if it’s several feet into the clay layer.

Try it. Bury a cat or dog six feet under and come back in five years. If it’s common clay, a large percentage will still be there.

> A buried body can last many years, especially if it’s several feet into the clay layer.

And in some cases (e.g. peat) "many" can end up being "hundreds" or even "thousands".

Sorry, I was unclear: I meant “much the same thing on the timescales at which buried humans are likely to be disturbed”, so 50-100 years at a minimum.

I imagine it will be at least that long, and likely much longer, until the land used for cemeteries is repurposed.

This feels like snake oil. A grave without cremation has to be way less energy consuming than controlled "compostation".

The difference is that you can't bury a body in a garden, for example (for sanitary reasons). But after it is properly composted, what you have is, well, compost. Which can then be placed somewhere and a tree planted in it, for example - and then you have a living gravestone.

"Corpses that aren’t embalmed or cremated are hotbeds for disease"

Say that to 1.7 billion Muslims who bury their dead using neither.

The researchers involved have looked a this a lot, and found very little evidence for it.

From a very young age I’ve thought cemeteries were ludicrous. It’s nice to be able to remember a loved one, but after a few hundred years is it still necessary? The fact is after a certain number of generations no one is grieving or remembering or even visiting the cemetery plots. In a nearby graveyard in London the gravestones are so old and space is so tight that they moved them all out of the way to make room for a playground.

Who am I to feel so important that I should take up space in perpetuity?

After a few generations, document the gravestones and get rid of them and make room for a park you can run around in.

I was amazed when I learned (from the net) that in 1900 San Francisco banned new cemeteries. But they didn't stop there: eviction notices were soon sent out. And from 1902 to 1947, bodies were moved out. Headstones were rounded up and dumped along the shores.

Many of the bodies wound up in Colma ... which now has 17 cemeteries, 73% of the city's land.



They used many of the headstones to pave parts of the walkways Buena Vista Park and some other areas of SF.

This may vary by person. For myself, I'm quite disappointed that my geneological tree runs dry just a few generations back. I'd love to see where it, it being me I suppose, began - but it's simply not possible. But today we're creating what may be a record that, at least ideally, people even thousands of years from now will be able to view. Imagine being able to see the thoughts and 'writings' (in a manner of speaking) of your ancestor from thousands of years past - see the lands that they knew as home (or at least what became of them), and ideally even see their final resting spot. Perhaps this does not appeal to you, but I find it extremely intriguing. I mean these people are quite literally a large part of you. I find it interesting to just ponder on such things.

It has little to do with grieving or even remembrance. In my case it's mostly curiosity. In a way it's akin to visiting a museum of you. And in the future people will be able to do this. This gets even more interesting once you consider that at some point, perhaps not far from now, there is an extremely high chance that your descendants will reside on another planet. I see no reason to believe that these descendants would have any less curiosity about their heritage.

That playground will eventually give way to some apartment complex, road, or place to buy crap and nobody will ever know or care that it was there. But the people of today are what will make up the people of thousands of years from now. And that lingering connection and curiosity of the past is something that I expect will probably remain with our species (and even the species we diverge onto in the future) indefinitely.

> I'm quite disappointed that my geneological tree runs dry just a few generations back.

Have you had a genealogical DNA test done and used 23andme or ancestry.com to try and connect to distant relatives? I realize many folks have reasonable privacy concerns about DNA testing[0], but it's highly likely you'll be able to connect to relatives this way and perhaps trace your genealogy out even further.

0. Although it's somewhat out of your hands if you have any relatives undergoing genealogical DNA testing.

Hmm, aren't keeping good records and cemetery plots non-exclusive?

It makes perfect sense but the generations that have to make that choice today (because they don't care about those dead people anymore) don't want to think tha they too will one day not matter anymore. It's a hard sell unless there are stronger reasons (e.g. housing is really really terrible that people will want to "disturb the dead"). Yeah, humans... :-)

Not only hundreds but tens of years when grandparents are not well known.

  If I should die before I wake,
  All my bone and sinew take
  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.

I'd probably choose this method of entering eternity if it was available where I live, but still I wonder: is this safe?

Edit: Ok, I better clarify, I was thinking of the risk of infectious diseases and other toxins to the people still alive.

Aerobic composting done right largely sterilizes the compost pile. It kills most harmful bacteria (and in the case of garden compost, weed seeds) because the pile heats to a really high temperature (140F+).

What about prions? Would they be eliminated by this method?

Likely not, however as I posted elsewhere in this thread, those with confirmed or suspected CJD would fall under other public health laws regarding handling of the deceased.

Prions aren't eliminated by any of our burial methods anyway. I think the best thing you can hope for is preventing animals from eating contaminated tissue. That wouldn't be an issue with any legal method of human remains disposal.

Aren't prions eliminated by cremation?

Ah yeah you're right. I knew they couldn't be destroyed by an autoclave, and I misunderstood what exactly those do. They're only pressure and heat above boiling (120*C).

Note that cremation produces its own human-health, especially in the form of mercury output from vaporized dental amalgams.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of religious practices (burial being one of them) originated from things that were a detriment to society or seen as "unclean" and that caused infection, diseases, or maybe just a bad stench. I wonder if long ago our ancestors learned a lesson about this that they codified in religion, but forgot the "why" part and now we are just going to repeat history.

> I wonder if long ago our ancestors learned a lesson about this that they codified in religion, but forgot the "why" part and now we are just going to repeat history.

That, combined with the desire but not the means to explain things they didn't understand, is religion in a nutshell.

It's very tempting to tell "just so" stories like this, but from the perspective of an infectious disease epidemiologist, cultural and religious practices, including burials, aren't consistently "good" from a disease standpoint. It's about 50/50 whether it helps or hurts.

Our ancestors didn't have microbiology. As long as we pay attention to the science, we won't be repeating history.

The debate is not whether we are more knowledgeable than our ancestors, the debate is are we any wiser*.

Okay, but the same applies to eating pork.

As long as we actually understand the underlying reasons why these practices were forbidden, and have addressed them, then it's okay to eat pork.

These issues have been studied, and composting is a pretty safe form of disposal as long as it's done properly.

As long as you're completely dead, it's definitely safe for you =)

For everything else that lives and dies on this planet, it's sort of the natural order of things.

Seems like you have little to lose. You're not going to die again, after all.

Cemeteries aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.

> Cemeteries aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.

The living are there 1% of the time. The dead are there 100%. Put the cemetery in a place that isn't prime real estate because of this was my opinion.

I think you're being overly dismissive of thousands(?) of years of human tradition. Yeah, we don't act completely rationally when it comes to death, because death is a deeply emotional thing, and we're not robots. People honor the dead by burying them in beautiful places, it's pretty simple.

Human tradition that originated in practical (at the time) solutions to a practical problem, that then got dressed up in ritual.

We need the practical solutions, not the ritual.

I would argue that for most people the ritual is much more important. Because, again, we’re not robots, traditions are deeply important to us, and some kind of send-off, be it burial, cremation, Viking burial, etc is part of the grieving process. It may not be important to some, but if you find yourself wondering “why do cemeteries get good real estate”, that’s why.

There are plenty of human traditions that don’t use a western-style cemetery.

There are thousands of years of history behind the cemetery tradition, part of a culture that's dominant in certain parts of the world. That there are other human cultures which have different practices doesn't make it any easier to change that one.

Not really thousands of years, western burial traditions have changed a lot over time. Here are some of the other examples https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Tombs_by_type

It’s an interesting subject with a mix of practical, religious, and economic incentives resulting in a huge range of different outcomes in even closely related cultures.

On the contrary, most of us are usually far too reverential to outdated traditions. We've very, very slowly abandoned the ones that resulted in completely unnecessary human suffering. But it doesn't mean the remaining ones are any more useful or justified than the ones that caused more direct or obvious harm.

Change is inevitable, even if uncomfortable.

You can have both though, you can have a plaque of remembrance which doesn't involve harsh chemicals and waste.

If composting isn't a good option then there's natural funerals where unembalmed people are buried in lightweight and compostable caskets and have trees planted over their grave.

I don't understand this "we're not robots, it's ok if we act irrationally" argument. While it's correct, it doesn't justify irrationality. If it could, you could justify anything with this. You could say it doesn't matter if God exists, humans are not robots and we want to believe in it so we do. Sure, if that's what you want, more power to you, but your argument is not convincing. I visit my dead family's grave but that doesn't mean this is an inalienable part of human experience. It's just culture, like eating yogurt with sugar vs salt.

You’re right, this extreme misrepresentation of my argument is not convincing

Most of the world cremates the dead.

couldn't agree more

People are in parks 1% of the time. The trees are there 100% of the time. Nevertheless, parks are for people, not trees.

I don't think new cemeteries are generally placed in prime real estate. But as cities grow and cemeteries remain unrelocated, what was rural pastureland becomes something more like prime real estate.

When you’re in a city, particularly an old one, try visiting a cemetery. It’s nearly always nice and quiet and generally there is someone or something of interest.

Especially in Paris - beautiful

It wasn't really prime real estate when they established the cemetery. Then those living people started encroaching...

I keep telling that to my grandfather, but he won't be tricked into trying out his grave.

Alkaline hydrolysis is another preferable option to ground burial. Much more environmentally friendly and allows large plots of land to be used for the living.

A character in Footfall (or was it Oath of Fealty?), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, composted the inconvenient body of someone he had murdered. I've wondered if that was practical and this article says affirmative. But for purposes of hiding a corpse I'd think it would be painfully slow to decompose. The man-eating pigs in Hannibal or Deadwood seem like a better bet, converting it quickly into fertilizer. But then you have to keep pigs.

Is it legal to feed a human corpse to pigs? Maybe it should be. It would seem to be eco-friendly.

Who's gonna eat that pig afterwards?

This is interesting though I remember seeing a ted talk on covering the corpse in fungi to detoxify the corpse while composting because human bodies are generally highly toxic...

I’m skeptical of this claim, that human bodies are “highly toxic.” What does that mean, exactly - what toxins are we talking about?

It's certainly true of embalmed bodies. Hopefully we wouldn't be composting those though.

Gastric acid, just to name one.

Imagine you try the zombie thing and eat a lot of dead flesh. You would get really sick and maybe die.

I don't know the chemical names offhand, but suffice to say the decomposition process has plenty of nasty byproducts, not to mention whatever might have been in the intestinal tract (eating feces == bad).

In all fairness, zombies don't generally eat heavily decomposed bodies. They tend to eat recently living or even currently living flesh most of the time, hence their tendency to kill people for their flesh.

On a slightly more serious note... there are plenty of carrion eating animals. Many of which are capable of eating humans. I'm sure it's not that toxic.

Apologies if my example was too beyond the pale, and as you mentioned, even less effective due to the freshness of the flesh.

iirc the carrion-eating animals have evolved particular mechanisms such that eating dead flesh doesn't harm them; they can eat a lot of stuff that would kill us. What is deadly toxic for a human may be nontoxic for a vulture or cockroach.

iirc you can use lime (powdered limestone, not the fruit) to accelerate the decomposition process while simultaneously detoxing. someone correct me if I've got this wrong.

I thought "Green Burials" have been allow in many states for years. It typically involves minimal embalming, with some sites not even having tombstones or markers, instead getting state approval to bury the bodies in nature restoration sites/parks.

I guess that's more passive though, because you're letting a human decompose like any animal, versus active industrial composting like we do we paper towels and food waste.

surprised no one has brought up Tibetan sky burial


Parsi burials in "Tower of silence"


> surprised no one has brought up Tibetan sky burial

I keep telling people that this is what I want (and I'm serious) but sadly it doesn't appear to be practical in my part of the world.

A nice tribute to Earth Day for the cofounder had experimented with human corpse composting with his murdered girlfriend.

Meh...call me when they approve Sky Burials...

So... What happens when they inevitably run out of money and go out of business?

Was this a burning issue to be resolved? I learn new things here every day.

Honestly, yes. Like, there were major research projects being done on alternative burial methods.

Excellent! I can be buried under a tree, like I always wanted.

Sounds quite similar to Islamic burial tradition.

"Soylent green is people!"

Of course. If you are going to kill 80% of the population it would be a shame making them all go to waste :P

In Washington, Soylent people are green!

This is an ad for recompose.life.

ever smelled a compositing body? its pretty nasty


We've asked you before to stop taking HN threads on flamewar tangents. If you keep doing it we will ban you.


MyNorthWest is a right wing hackjob of a publication. That aside, your comment is completely off-topic.

The article is by KIRO7 news staff. Is KOMO News also a "right wing hackjob of a publication"? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpAi70WWBlw

Sinclair has hijacked KOMO repeatedly to spread corporate lines: https://money.cnn.com/2018/03/07/media/sinclair-broadcasting...

Frankly, Sinclair owned stations should be required to have common branding if they are going to share the exact same website design, news content and management, anything less is deceiving the public.

I take it you didn't watch the video. Watch it first, then comment on what's a more pressing issue: composting or thousands of people living under the bridges and shooting up heroin.

Great jab to derail from how KOMO is literally a talking piece of Sinclair!

I live in Seattle and have watched that hackjob of a video, they've fenced the underside of many bridges that homeless used to camp under, most recently the West Seattle and Ballard bridges have been fenced.

Your obviously disgruntled, move somewhere else!

In other news, Americans rediscover the Jewish/Muslim way of burial.

Either you don't understand the traditions you are trying to reference, or the methodology approved.

Will they also allow sky burial?

Edit: I was being serious. I would choose a sky burial if given the option. Feeding scavenger birds is a natural and aesthetically satisfying method of corpse disposal.

In general, why treat dead bodies any more specially than any other piece of organic matter? Use them for compost, eat them, make clothing out of the skin, etc. What's the problem? We do it to animals, and humans are just another kind of animal.

There is a great difference between what is rationally true and what an emotional being (i.e. a person) will do. See the trolley problem and many others. For instance, people will stay in a declining stock past the "rational threshold" because they have developed an emotional attachment to it.

We view people and animals as different. We have a long tradition of viewing people as different. We have pushed those limits somewhat with organ donation, but generally speaking, we don't break people down for spare parts. Most religions and corresponding cultures view people as made by God and having a small element of the diving. This is the reason people are considered better than animals, and the reason there are different requirements for veterinary vs human medicine. Same reason we eat animals without issue.

Maybe you disagree; we are each free to our respective opinions. But most people don't view humans as "just another kind of animal".

If that's the case, then why is it a good thing that humans are being used for compost? Seems inconsistent. Either humans are more sacred than other animals, and should be treated specially, even when dead. Or, if they don't need to be treated specially when dead, then why treat them specially at any other point?

I guess this legislation is a way to rationally erode the obsolete emotional reasons for treating the human body as something special.

> Either humans are more sacred than other animals, and should be treated specially, even when dead

This legislation doesn't force anyone to be composted after their death. It gives a families and loved ones a new option, without taking away any options.

As such we haven't taken away anyone's options to treat humans specially, or however they wanted to be treated.

As long as it's safe and doesn't introduce significant negative externalities, I fail to see why not granting more choices would be a bad idea.

Yes, that's my point. The legislation treats this as an emotional, opinion issue. Not an issue where there is a truth of the matter.

I'm not sure what you're arguing here. I believe humans are sacred and ought to be treated as such, even when dead.

I'm pointing out the legislation is incompatible with the view the human body is sacred.

For one, animals are properly slaughtered and they are required to be healthy to be considered for human consumption.

Dying humans are usually sick, old, or otherwise damaged, and are not slaughtered but die naturally, so e.g. they’re not bled out properly.

So even if it wasn’t dangerous due to diseases, it wouldn’t be palatable unless heavily processed down to the molecular level. At that point you basically get bonemeal, the same stuff we make from animal carcasses, and used as a fertilizer or food supplement for livestock.

Yes, why not feed human corpses to livestock?

Also, why not slaughter humans for food when they are younger and better eating? Why do we treat humans any different than any other animal?

Purely on a practical level we don't tend to eat apex predators as they have a build up of unpleasant chemicals within their flesh.

We just need a better diet for the apex predators then, so they'll be good eating.

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