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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Composting Corpses



A New Ecological Approach to Death

Kelly Shi

Earlier this week, The Big Q and SCU’s Ethics Bowl Team co-hosted a discussion about a new ecological approach to death. Here’s what we talked about:

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Most of us are willing to make saving the environment part of our lives. But what about making it a part of our deaths? 

Katrina Spade, founder of the Urban Death Project, is proposing a new way of dealing with corpses. She hopes to develop a large facility with a composting system where human remains can fully decompose into soil, which can then be given to family members of the deceased. The nutrient-rich soil can also be used to grow flowers and trees in public parks, serving as a tribute to the cycle of life. Still in the early stages of seeking funding, the Urban Death Project has yet to gain legislative approval or public support. But it raises three ethical concerns that apply to both the living and the dead:

Saving the Environment

Composting corpses is much more environmentally friendly compared to traditional methods like burial or cremation. The traditional process of burying bodies involves using carcinogenic chemicals for treating the body in addition to large amounts of wood, metal, and concrete for burial. Over all, the US uses 90,000 tons of steel, 9 million meters of wood, and 1.6 million tons of concrete every year in burying the dead. Cremations are also environmentally taxing, with every cremation requiring the same amount energy that could sustain a single person for an entire month. But given the significance of an individual’s death, it might be inappropriate to compare the energy used by cremation to that of a living person.  

Respecting the Dead

The most prevalent objection to composting corpses is that it disrespects the dead. Some claim that a collective burial system like that of the Urban Death Project is tantamount to a mass grave. Whether or not this is a fair comparison, it is true that the family of the deceased would not necessarily receive their loved one’s remains, since the soil is also produced by the corpses of many others. Furthermore, many feel that composting corpses would violate burial traditions, which often hold profound religious, cultural, and emotional significance. In response, Spade argues that composting corpses respects the dead by honoring the life-giving powers of their bodies. It remains unclear who gets to decide what counts as respectful treatment of the dead. Is it the deceased themselves (through requests made prior to their deaths), their loved ones, or society at large?

Breaking the Law

Many states have requirements that limit the options to burial, cremation, entombment, or donations to science. Some have pointed out that these state regulations are rooted in traditional cultural attitudes towards death, since undisposed corpses do not actually pose a biohazardous threat to public health. A few states have recognized this and responded by legalizing the nontraditional method of water cremation. Some think natural burial through composting should be the next step. The issue’s not just legal - it’s ethical too. As one of its duties, the government has the responsibility to decide on a policy that best takes care of its people - both living an dead. With overcrowded city cemeteries, growing environmental concerns, and public resistance to new burial methods, it’s not clear what should be done.

What are your thoughts? Is composting corpses an ethical method for disposing of human bodies?

Kelly Shi is the Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. 

Jan 22, 2016