Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Don't bury or cremate – soon you may compost your corpse (cbc.ca)
94 points by pseudolus 56 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 97 comments

There is a place like that near where I live in Canada, your remains gets transformed into a fertilizer and a small tree is planted right above it.

I already specified it in my will to go for such a solution or in the same vein, as long as it remain as eco-friendly as possible.

I really like the idea of having a tree with my name on it, instead of a tombstone.

I'm being reforged into the family claymore. But I like this tree idea a lot too.

Even better if it's a fruit tree.

Lol I would not eat the fruit from a tree with a known dead body feeding it. Even if the science claims it’s okay it just seems weird.

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

~ Carl Sagan

Parents: "Every Apple from that tree is a bite of Grandpa!"

Kids: "What??!!"

How's that weird? Every fruit you've ever eaten probably has been feeding from some dead body, whether human or not.

The atoms in the food you eat, the air your breathe, and the water you drink have been part of trillions of dead bodies.

Getting a little soylent greeny I agree

"Granny Smith"

There was a great article on nrk.no about how people are still not decomposed in their graves after 70 years: https://www.nrk.no/viten/xl/plassmangel-og-blaleire-gir-stor...

One example is clay. Burying in clay rich ground will slow decay because it limits the flow of air.

Another example is from the late 1950s where people would be buried in plastic wrap, to make the burial process more sanitary. They did this for 15-20 years. None of those bodies have decomposed much, but worse is that all the liquids are trapped inside the plastic :|

Pop a straw in and you have the most macabre capri-sun

People are long-lived apex predators, wouldn't this have a heavy metal problem? Tuna and other apex predators tend to be dangerous to eat due to the buildup of pollutants inside them, and they don't live nearly as long or eat nearly as much as a human.

And a potential prion problem as well. Plants grown in prion-contaminated soil can absorb prions, and animals who subsequently eat the plants can become infected. [1] And while composting might be enough to destroy most infectious diseases, it certainly isn't enough to denature prions.

[1] Sandra Pritzkow et al. "Grass plants bind, retain, uptake, and transport infectious prions." Cell Reports (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4449294/

I sincerely hope I can't get mad cow disease from eating a banana.

Maybe it's still better to have the heavy metals concentrated into a small area rather than dispersed with smoke.

Cremation results in ashes, only the light volatiles go up in smoke. Conventional burial also isolates the heavy metals in one place; which wouldn't happen with composting because they would all enter the ecosystem.

Heavy metal accumulation is due to what the fish eat - filter feeders that concentrate metals.

Our diet is much more varied.

There's lead from dental fillings though.

Mercury? There is no lead in dental filings. In fact, filings are mercury free as of the last couple of decades.

In some places, yes. If you get the silver/gray stuff, it's about half mercury.

I think lead was used in dental amalgams but I don't know when it was phased out. But yeah, mercury too.

The word "amalgam" means a mixture of mercury with another metal. A lead amalgam would be too soft to use as a chewing surface (it would have a texture like chewing gum). Traditional dental amalgams were mixtures of silver or gold and mercury.

You are right, I probably misremembered what I've read.

The introduction of cremation and the establishment of the first necropolis' in Paris (I think) and London was a huge social advance. Being able to talk openly and frankly about modes of interment, the recognition of a growing class of atheists, deists but not christians, a migrant population created many new states. London had a special railway line to the cemetary, and you got black-lined ticket to ride the coffin-train-hearse.

At times (from 1660s), to ensure the survival of the wool industry and raise taxes for the state, the shroud was a defined quantity of wool cloth, of a stated quality, which had to be sufficient to wrap the corpse like a Christmas cracker, tied head and toe. I like to imagine it was much like a farmer growing grapes destined for the wine-lake: you shear sheep, to make cloth, to wrap corpses, to earn taxes for the national economy.

I don't see why we can't get to the same kind of open-minded "why not" with composting. We've already had woven coffins, and the ending of routine embalming in many cultures. The liquid biological digester I find slightly more mechanistically worrying. Nobody talks about what you do with the fluids afterward (I think its using Lye or some other caustic solvent to dispose, and its not aiming to fertilize trees the way composting is)

Thankfully there's a good choice of natural and forest burials in the UK now. Surprisingly it can be the cheaper option. Actual composting is but a small step from there...

Burial at sea used to be another natural option. A body sewed into sail canvas, weighted with rocks (or cannon balls), which continued beyond WW2. Now it's a whole damn full size coffin, and regulations for the minimum amount of weight bolted to it - steel or concrete!


The body being sewn into canvas for the burial at sea was related to the people having canvas hammocks. You were buried in your hammock after they sewed it up - the last stitch went through your nose.

Aye, but they stuck with canvas long after ships switched to bunks not hammocks, and on the ocean liners etc.

Happily there are better ways to be sure of death than the last stitch of Nelson's day. :)

Doesn’t seem that onerous. That’s 40£ of wood plank, 4 bags of cement, and some steel bands you can find at nearly any metalworks shop. I think the bigger worry is a corps that isn’t properly weighed down can turn into a very expensive police investigation. They won’t know if it’s a sea burial, drowning, or a crime.

It's not the financial load, it's the environmental / CO2 load that takes an exit with negligible impact and gives it significant impact. Ignoring any boat mileage of course, the wood may be sustainable and low impact, but neither steel or cement are when used as single use packaging. :)

Relocating a few bits of sandstone in a canvas bag is trivial by comparison. Just as well sea burials have become pretty rare these days.

Not really significant, compared to the impact of living. You are much better off changing your lifestyle than worrying about your coffin.

Profligate is profligate regardless of whataboutism. Every activity should make effort to be sustainable, and must convert to being zero carbon if the climate crisis is to be averted. That includes burials.

Besides someone may be considering burial after they've already changed lifestyle as far as possible.

> ending of routine embalming in many cultures

Interestingly, routine embalming is actually relatively new. While embalming itself has of course existed for millennia, it wasn't widely practiced (at least in the West) until the American Civil War.


In some places you can go for a 'natural' burial where you are minimally processed and simply placed in the ground in basically a natural material burial shroud.

In a lot of places, however, this is highly illegal and there are minimum requirements for burial (which can include embalming and/or a casket and/or a concrete and/or a burial vault which is basically a concrete sarcophagus that caskets go in).

Here in Indiana the only requirement is you have to be placed in a designated cemetery or graveyard 'within a reasonable time' however, pretty much every cemetery here requires a casket and a burial vault.

I used to bury people for a living and always found it so dumb, I'd have to excavate the grave, get chains under a vault and lift it with the backhoe, very slowly drive it out to the grave to prevent it swinging and cracking, lower it into the hole, go put the backhoe up, come back and jump down int he grave with a dust pan and get any dirt that fell into the vault and climb back out without knocking more in, cover it with a tarp and a piece of plywood then do prep an hour or so before the body was to arrive to have it ready for the graveside service.

Then... people would throw handfuls of dirt into the vault eyetwitch and after they left I'd remove all the fake grass and stuff, go get the small tractor, wrestle the vault lid into the front loader bucket, slowly drive out to the grave, wrestle it out of the bucket and get some straps on it, lift hte straps with the bucket and lower it down, let slack out slowly on one end to lower one side of the lid on, remove the straps, lower it more and then play 'don't crush my fingers' while I'm laying next to the grave trying to get the straps out without slamming the lid down and breaking it.

THEN I could put the dirt back and get back to cutting several acres of grass and walking around with a backpack full of diesel to weed eat while trying not to get sun poisoning again.

Man, do not miss that job.

Laws requiring embalming/caskets are pretty uncommon. There aren't any laws at the US Federal level, and only a handful of states have any restrictions. Finding a funeral director to provide a natural burial can be more difficult, although most large cities have at least one option.

Not naming the Recompose "Product" 'Soil-End Green' is a missed opportunity.

beat me to it...

For those interested in the thermodynamics, composting generates heat and methane/CO2 emissions. If the composting object (body, trash, etc.) sufficiently disrupts the soil nutrient level (metal content, etc.), it becomes less suitable for healthy plant growth.

There is a growing debate as to whether it is better to incinerate (cremate) for energy generation/offsetting, because the output can be more effectively filtered/separated. (One must of course plant organic matter to offset CO2 output).

This is why many European countries incinerate their waste to reduce risk of disrupting the land.

I thought Muslims perform their burials in style of compost.

In Pakistan,

The dead body is wrapped in cloth shroud and the grave is dug six feet and is lined with concrete blocks (ground is bare Earth). Coffin is not used. The body is laid in the grave then if I remember correctly, grave is covered partially (25% - 33%?) with soil and then thick concrete/stone slabs are placed on top to cover the grave. After that, the grave is covered with mound of Earth.

concrete is super terrible for the environment compared to wood.

Really depends on sect, culture, country etc. In a lot of Muslim countries they do use coffins, like Turkey.

I personally want to be interred in a mushroom infused burial suit [0]. The idea of going back to the progenitor fungal network really comforts me actually.

[0] - https://coeio.com/coeio-story/

Given the dwindling space for burials:


and the energy/greenhouse gas emission costs of cremation, I can see this taking off.

There's a picture and caption not discussed in the text:

> Katrina Spade, upper left, the founder and CEO of Recompose, a company that hopes to use composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains, looks on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, centre, signs a bill into law at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., that allows licensed facilities to offer "natural organic reduction," which turns a body into soil in a span of several weeks. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Was Spade involved in bringing that legislation about?

The dwindling space for burials... In the middle of urban areas.

Not just urban areas. The swamp where I live is getting pretty full. It's getting harder harder to find a place to bury bodies.

My will specifies above-ground consumption by insects, followed by a clear urethane casting resin ossuary.

It also specifies cats-eye cubic zirconium retroreflectors in the eye sockets of the skull. It gives me a little thrill to imagine being discovered in a storage unit 200 years from now and creeping someone out because they saw the eyes glow from their flashlight.

Having a little trouble finding 25 mm diameter spheres of cubic zirconium, though, so I can't die yet. I can get a big chunk of it and maybe cut that down in a lathe, but I'd almost rather buy 5mm beads and make an array.

I would love to know how this process compares to simple burial in a wicker basket or something like that. I always assumed that decomposition in soil, without any embalming chemicals or hardwood coffin, would be about as natural as decomposition would get.

I guess the compost from this process would be of higher quality, but compared to burying your loved one in a machine where they have to decompose for a few weeks, I think returning them straight to the earth would feel better for the relatives.

Decomposition would be best in the open, not buried in the soil. You need oxygen for all kind of life to eat your corpse.

Sky Burial would be my favorite way to go.

I come from a culture where this is the norm. In fact they encourage vultures to eat the dead during the sky burial.

I've always liked the idea. Living in the Pacific North West, I would love to be taken to the top of a mountain and left at the top.

That said, I understand that this nice idea is not appropriate, because at scale it would ruin the mountains for the living :P

Reminds me of Record of a spaceborn few, a book by Becky Chambers.

It goes into detail how on a generation ship the bodies are composted and become nutrients to grew new food upon.

In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, the original settlers of one of the planets (Grayson) found the soil was too polluted with heavy metals that they needed to create purified soil of their own for growing food. So amongst other things they buried people in their gardens, though by the time of the stories, they had transitioned away from being food gardens.

Personally, I'm an organ donor and donating my body to science. I don't care what happens to it when I'm gone.

What do they do with it once "used"? I know, search it, but it's a morbid topic I'd rather read no more about than possible.

Depends on who you donate to, see this for example: https://www.newsweek.com/donated-body-sold-army-brc-arizona-...

The family / next of kin gets the body back after it has been used, normally cremated.

I've filled out the forms for myself lately and it depends what you choose. You can choose for the body to be kept indefinitely if you want or returned to the family after a period, in the UK at least.

I think mainly to allow med students to practice procedures on.

This has been done over centuries, and is still standard in Europe, where the embalming fad never has caught on.

Natural burial is completely different to composting. Have you read the article?

When someone dies, their body is taken to a human composting facility [..] After wrapping the deceased in a simple shroud, friends and family carry the body to the top of the core which contains the natural decomposition system [..] It would be done in a contained vessel which [..] would be rotated to provide physical disruption so oxygen could access all parts of the composting material. This would also help control the moisture level.

By the time we completed our trials, we were developing material that was very pleasant to handle, it was a very fine compost that was relatively stable, [and] it smelled good

Where in Europe is this standard practice, exactly?

Active composting isn't. However most graves seem to already be efficient enough at it that you can bury a new corpse in one every few years without being blocked by the remains of the previous inhabitant.

Other posts in this thread mention issues with the soil composition, like if it has a high amount of clay, bodies are well preserved. Really may depend on where specifically you're burying the bodies.

> is still standard in Europe

AFAIK that's not really true, europeans are not usually highly embalmed but they're mostly buried in coffins in vaults rented for years or decades (depending on the country).

AFAIK https://i2.wp.com/www.talkdeath.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/... is a pretty typical-looking cemetery for western europe at least (some countries tend towards just the headstone and no vault, but as an other commenter notes that doesn't mean the body readily decomposes either)

hi, european here. Never heard about composting here.

Those are not vaults. Those are just holes in ground with a cover on top. It's mostly decorative and there so that you don't walk on top of the coffin.

We don't usually own these also. Usually city where you live has a cemetery that must provide a place for the coffin.

In Poland municipality provides a place in ground, but for at most 20 years. After that the place is recycled for another burial. You're free to buy it though to prolong that term and in my opinion it's quite common among the elder ones.

> In Poland municipality provides a place in ground

That would apply to municipal graveyard while church owned ones are managed separately. In either case, if grave spot fee isn't paid on time, space goes back to the pool while remains of previous "occupant" are transferred to the ossuarium - IIRC.

I wanted to say that there's plenty of embalming in Europe, but I figured I'd check to verify first. Turns out that in Netherland until 2009 it used to be illegal to embalm the dead, with an exception for members of the royal family.

Soon? Looks like someone's ahead of the curve:


I completely agree with this method - I’ve just opted to be put in a faux coffin filled with my body and 100lbs of explosives. That should take care of “scattering my remains”.

Seems like a definite “slam bang” finish to whatever my life amounts to.

I wonder if is the beginning of an industry where you can sign your body away to be used as fertilizer, with the proceeds going to your estate.

Opens up some grim possibilities though.

I wonder if this has happened in the past, we just don't have archaeological records of it because the bodies have been composted?

Of course it has. There are many cultures where it was normal to simply dig a hole in the earth and put the body in there, either directly, or wrapped in cloths or in a wooden casket.

The composting happens slower that way, but it still does.

While composting has a lot of benefits, I would be very sad to attend a friend's burial if they were to be composted. Feels like a disrespectful way to let someone go.

I'm also concerned about disease transmission. Cows' diseases may not necessarily affect us but humans' certainly will. The need to disinfect kinda defeats the purpose (pollution with chemicals)

Hope about we just compost other things and let human bodies be

I don't think it's particularly disrespectful, isn't all that's needed a change of perspective? What makes it disrespectful, precisely?

The common method of embalming in North America seems more disrespectful - pumping a body full of chemicals that weren't there in the first place and helping to pollute the earth.

Composting seems like a mixture between cremation and natural burial. At the funeral ceremony, the deceased disappears into a machine, as with cremation, but eventually the body will feed the soil, like with natural burial.

I think it's mostly a slower, cleaner version of cremation, though.


Those strawberries were your aunt before she was born. Did you know strawberries and other foods go into producing humans? And when we die we, if given a natural death, we can go into producing foods again? It's always been that way. If you want to make the argument that @spinach's view is poisoned by futurism, you ought to take a look at yours which I'd argue is poisoned by modernity. You are the earth, you are of this earth and you'll go back into this earth eventually unless you opt for some expensive astro-death where you'll eventually land into some other material planet into that dirt. And shared memories are immaterial, detached from that person once they die. That's the beauty of those memories, that's what makes them special, the fleeting moments in the nows and thens knowing none of this will last forever. I get that it may make you nauseous as it does me to some extent but OP's view is far from "fucked up".

And why does this anger you so?

Nobody is forcing you to compost anyone else's body, right?

You have the right to be burned or buried in a variety of sanitary ways. Composting is currently not allowed, yet, in many jurisdictions.

Do you find mummies undignified? Stalin's preserved body left for display? "Heaven" burials Zoroastrianism practices?

It's all cultural though. Other people with other culture would find disrespectful that you don't dig up your dead once a year to wash them up and give them new clothes.

Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.

Letting a body burn, rot or being mummified isn't any more respectful in my eyes.

I'm not too concerned about the transmission of diseases after composting (the presence of pathogens in the resulting compost will have to be assessed, but I don't expect them to fare well in soil. Prions may be harder to get rid of...).

My main concern would be about the plastics and metals from prosthesis and tooth fillings that would end up in there...

Feeling attached to that kind of judgements is part of culture. Luckily culture changes trough time, this news opens the possibility that in some years this alternative could be as respectful as sustainable.

Cultures don't change. New cultures form. Old cultures die.

The judgement is attached to the significance of the person. The right casket, right dress, right ceremony. But ritual comes from religion.

A new religion around sustainable life will adopt this method. The others who adopt will be the fringe individuals.

I'm talking about culture in its general concept as the "cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings..." I say it taking in account that changes in human behavior are not an abrupt jump from white to black. http://people.tamu.edu/~i-choudhury/culture.html

What if your friend sees no value in their body after they're done with it and wants to be composted? Perhaps they found it the least impactful way to go.

Wouldn't respecting their wishes seem more important?

Or if they do see value in their body as returning it to the earth and continuing the circle of life.

@NeedMoreTea: “What if your friend sees no value in their body after they're done with it” ..

Yea, why not just dip the corpse in silicone epoxy, mount it on a plinth and put it on display. Oh wait, someone else has already thought of that.


“The first Matrix I designed was .. [a] monumental failure .. Thus, I redesigned it based on your history to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature.”

That got a laugh.

Once I'm dead, I'm done with it. I have no remnant of silly medieval ideas like the saintly sanctity of a corpse or any need of special religious consideration or ceremony. The most fitting use to my mind is, as ChrisRR suggests, returning to the natural cycle of the earth adding as little pollution as possible. Composting, repurposed as dog food, feed worms, fish or even birds via sky burial, I don't much care.

Epoxy filled as a display piece is rather high impact for my taste, I'd prefer to feed the soil with a forest burial thanks. If the "artist" were to offer my descendents a large enough royalty for my use as inside out epoxied exhibit, along with appropriate carbon offset I would gladly reconsider... :)

In Canada, or at least where I am, cremation is a much more common method of disposal. We do ceremonies in a funeral parlor, sometimes there is an urn, sometimes not. There isn't attachment to the corpse. I don't see why composting would be disrespectful.

Some cultures, like Tibetans and Zoroastrians, practice “sky burial” where they literally leave the bodies out for carrion, sometimes even cutting it to pieces to make it easier for the vultures to get at.

So our ideas about what’s respectful are based on the expectations that are culturally coded into us. When new systems arise, we’ll come up with new ways to imbue then with gravity and respect.

>> Feels like a disrespectful way to let someone go.

What is a respectful way to let someone go?

I don't find it disrespectful if that's what the person wanted.

I don't see why it's any worse than burying them and letting the worms eat them, or burning them, crushing them into dust and scattering that dust into the sea.

If said friend wanted to be composted after they expire, I don’t see anything disrespectful about it.

I don’t particularly enjoying thinking of my own demise, but I do know I would rather my death be as least impactful on the environment as possible, and I’d hope that friends & family will at least smile knowing that was my choice.

Actually quite interesting and one of the most sensible things I have heard in a long time, you know , our maker had sustainability in mind when creating us, we are the ones who chose otherwise.

Cool idea

I can't help but think of the movie How High.

You mean, bury. If you bury a corpse, without embalming it and doing funny things to it, it rots like everything else.

I thought we are all worm food


Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact