California Legalizes Human Composting as a Clean Burial Alternative

The cheaper and environmentally friendlier method is leading a growing movement away from more traditional death rituals

Human composting is officially an alternative burial method in California after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 351, his office announced in a legislative update on Sunday. The Golden State joins Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont in legalizing the process.

Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), also referred to as human composting, provides what proponents say is a sustainable alternative to more traditional burials or cremation. Recompose, the company that created the process, says NOR decomposes a body by placing it into “a vessel surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw.” After 30 days, microbes will have turned the beloved into nutrient-rich soil.

“People are becoming more and more interested in alternatives to the traditional burials,” Dr. Caitlyn Hauke, President of the Green Burial Council told LAMag. “Green burials, as well as resomation [water cremation] or natural organic reduction,” are all becoming more popular and often providing cheaper and more environmentally friendly options, she explained.

The Green Burial Council specializes in certifying cemeteries across the country to be more sustainable—“that means no embalming, no liners or vaults, and using biodegradable containers, whether caskets, shrouds, or nothing at all,” its website explains. Although the closest “natural” cemetery—one that only allows green burials—is in the Bay Area, there are three “hybrid” cemeteries within Los Angeles, that allow the process. Some cemeteries in states where it’s legal allow for the compost to be used.

Over the past decade, cremations have become increasingly popular as people have turned away from traditional burials, eschewing the use of a standard casket and embalming fluid. In 2015, “the national cremation rate surpassed the casketed burial rate for the first time in U.S. history (47.9% vs. 45.2%)—and then exceeded 50% the very next year,” according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Both cremations and traditional burials, however, are environmentally unfriendly due to the chemicals used or released in the process, Business Insider reported. Traditional burials fare worse because of toxic embalming fluids, water usage for maintaining cemeteries, and the use of resources for caskets.

“In 2020 we witnessed SouthCoast Air Quality Management District suspend cremation limits traditionally set to limit harmful emissions from filling our air, due to the COVID 19 pandemic. This is another sad reminder that we must legalize a more environmentally friendly option as soon as possible,” Assemblywoman Garcia said in a press release.

NOR would save “the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon from entering the environment,” according to Garcia. It’s also cheaper than a traditional burial, but not by much, something Hauke believes could change as competition increases. The current cost for NOR is $5,000 to $7,000, slightly less than a traditional burial, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“Some of the providers offer this service in really beautiful buildings that offer space for families to have services. I suppose one way to reduce costs would be to make the operation as bare bones as possible,” Hauke told LAMag via email. “But then I think that may not appeal to a lot of families. Perhaps as more and more providers offer this option, they’ll be able to hone in further on process methods and reduce costs that way as well.

NOR and other green burials also require less space, solving yet another issue facing an ever-increasing number of cemeteries in the U.S. and across the world: they’re running out of room for the dead. Although the U.S. isn’t lacking space for new cemeteries, the ones that already exist, especially in large urban centers, are getting too close for comfort, Forbes reported.

Not everyone agrees. The Catholic Church, for instance, said that NOR “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity,” according to SFGate.

For Hauke, choosing a more alternative option largely comes down to understanding what’s available when faced with a difficult and heartbreaking situation.

“You’re in this really vulnerable state,” she says. “And you go to a funeral home, you don’t really think about any alternatives at that point,” she says, adding that the situation may change as more people learn about human composting.

Assemblywoman Garcia says she is personally considering NOR, explaining, “I look forward to continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree.”

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