By Damita Menezes
Human composting is gaining traction in Illinois. The state House voted 63-38 to pass a bill legalizing the method, but what exactly is it? Who is for it and against it? And what does it mean for the future of the death care industry and the environment?
HELLO. WELCOME BACK TO MEDILL NEWSMAKERS. I’M DAMITA MENEZES. WE HAVE A THOUGHT-PROVOKING STORY THAT’S STIRRING UP DISCUSSIONS IN ILLINOIS. HUMAN COMPOSTING. A CONTROVERSIAL NEW METHOD TO SAY GOODBYE TO THE DECEASED IS GAINING TRACTION IN THE STATE. THE ILLINOIS HOUSE VOTED 63-38 TO PASS THE BILL TO LEGALIZE HUMAN COMPOSTING. BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS IT? WHO IS FOR IT AND AGAINST IT? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF THE DEATH CARE INDUSTRY AND THE ENVIRONMENT?
JUST LIKE YOU CAN COMPOST YOUR FOOD SCRAPS, THE HUMAN BODY CAN ALSO BE COMPOSTED. THERE ARE SIX OTHER STATES IN THE UNITED STATES WHERE HUMAN COMPOSTING IS LEGAL. WASHINGTON WAS THE FIRST STATE TO LEGALIZE IT IN 2019. COLORADO, OREGON, VERMONT, CALIFORNIA AND NEW YORK HAVE ALSO FOLLOWED ALONG. THESE STATES RECOGNIZE HUMAN COMPOSTING AS A LEGAL, REGULATED AND ECO ALTERNATIVE TO TRADITIONAL BURIAL AND CREMATION METHODS. BUT WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF HUMAN COMPOSTING?
Brienna Smith: At our facility, we have vessels that are rectangular in shape. We filled them up about halfway with a mixture of straw, alfalfa and sawdust. And it’s really that. A very, very specific ratio of moisture to the organics. The person is then placed down, and at that point, families can place anything biodegradable, compostable or consumable in the vessel with them as kind of a ritual or a farewell. And then ultimately, we place organics on top of the person. So, we kind of snuggle them in between the two layers. And at that point, we just place them on a system that allows oxygen to continue flowing through the vessel. It’s an aerobic process, and the body just breaks down slowly and naturally over the course of 60 to 90 days.
DANIEL HENNESSY HAS BEEN ADVOCATING FOR HUMAN COMPOSTING IN ILLINOIS. AFTER HIS MOTHER EXPRESSED HER DESIRE TO NOT BE BURIED IN ORDER TO AVOID TAKING UP LAND, HE RESEARCHED THE PROCESS OF HUMAN COMPOSTING AND FOUND IT TO BE A MORE DIGNIFIED ALTERNATIVE TO CREMATION.
HENNESSY APPROACHED STATE REP. KELLY CASSIDY, A CHICAGO DEMOCRAT, IN AN EFFORT TO INTRODUCE LEGISLATION THAT WOULD OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZE HUMAN COMPOSTING AS AN ALTERNATIVE METHOD FOR HANDLING HUMAN REMAINS.
Hennessy: When it was legalized in Washington, I went to see her and I said, “Look, it’s happening in Washington, and there are other states interested in it.” I think it was a really interesting thing to do here because it gives more choices for people. And she said, “I think it’s fantastic.” And so, she had a bill drawn up, and she took it through the House and cleared the House now and is in the Senate.
THE ILLINOIS HOUSE PASSED THE BILL ON MARCH 24TH. HENNESSY’S ADVOCACY IS DRIVEN BY THE DESIRE TO OFFER ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY OPTIONS FOR END-OF-LIFE CHOICES.
Hennessy: I didn’t have a choice when my mom died, so I had to cremate her. And I don’t think people, you know, we live in a democracy and it’s the kind of first-world country. And to have only two options, which are burial and cremation, seems ludicrous. The environmental impact of burial and cremation is dreadful. You know, when you get burned at 1,200 degrees, you omit just under a ton of CO2 and heavy metals. Burial is just as bad because you’re cutting down trees, making caskets, putting metal handles on and all that gets buried. And then you’re doing, you’re lining the graves with concrete, and all that concrete, you know, contributes to CO2. So actually, that is just as bad. And also, people are pumping carcinogenic chemicals into bodies, formaldehyde, to try and make them look nice when you lay people out. And all that stuff is bad, all that stuff is. But you know, that leaches into the soil, so it pollutes the soil.
RETURN HOME, A HUMAN COMPOSTING COMPANY IN WASHINGTON STATE, HAS EXPERIENCED A BOOM IN BUSINESS AS MORE STATES LEGALIZE IT. BUT THERE IS OPPOSITION FROM THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
Smith: Right off the bat, if you think about sustainability while you’re alive, it’s something you should think about for your end-of-life plans as well. But what I have noticed more than anything and kind of the reason why I prefer the service is because it’s so gentle. Embalming. I’m an embalmer, you know, it can be a little bit invasive. And then, of course, cremation is just a very quick process. And a lot of people don’t like the idea of being embalmed or, you know, ultimately incinerated. And so, this option gives them peace of mind because it’s just a gentle conversion into letting nature doing what it does naturally.
CATHOLIC EXPERTS ARGUE THIS PROCESS DEGRADES THE DIGNITY OF THE PERSON’S BODY BECAUSE IT SCATTERS AND SEPARATES THE REMAINS.
David Bonagura: The human body must be treated with respect in burial, and therefore it must remain together intact when burying, and the church prefers burial over cremation. It allows cremation, but on the grounds that the remains of the cremated stay together. They cannot be scattered or separated in any way.
Smith: To those who oppose and think that we’re dividing or separating, this is actually the only disposition, you know, where we don’t separate anything at all. Embalming, which is specific to a lot of those groups, actually separates the blood from the body. And we do have families who have sent their loved ones to cemeteries. So, you know, this is still an option for people who want that type of service. It just happens a little bit later.
THE BIBLE SAYS, “YOU ARE DUST AND TO DUST YOU SHALL RETURN.” AND IN SOME CASES, PEOPLE WOULD SEE COMPOSTING AS, YOU KNOW, LITERALLY LIKE IT’S ACTUAL DUST THAT YOU ARE FORMING INTO ONCE YOU HAVE PASSED. BUT WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THAT? WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IN OPPOSITION TO THAT?
Bonagura: That’s correct. Dust you shall return. However, the bones remain. They don’t turn into dust, and they remain in the earth as a physical marker that there was a person here, with a history and a family and a story. And I think it’s a very telling memo to us from nature.
BONAGURA ARGUES THAT IF WE TREAT HUMAN BODIES AS EXPENDABLE THROUGH PRACTICES LIKE COMPOSTING, IT MAY LEAD TO A DEVALUATION OF HUMAN LIFE.
Bonagura: If we don’t retreat, treat the person well in death, that we realize if we compost, for instance, we give ourselves the idea that human beings are expendable, that they’re no different from any other piece of material that exists in the world.
Smith: It’s one of the most important things that we do for the people we love, is to see them through the end of their life. And so we take it with just a lot of reverence, and the whole process is done in that way. Return Home is true to its namesake. And we go, we will go to people’s homes and help them have a home vigil. We believe very much in the hands that love you in life continuing to love you in death, because the modern U.S. funeral industry has kind of removed that step.
WHETHER PEOPLE ARE FOR IT OR AGAINST IT, HUMAN COMPOSTING MIGHT SOON BECOME AN OPTION FOR THOSE WHO SEEK IT. AND FUNERAL HOMES ARE READY TO START OFFERING IT AS A SERVICE.
Gregory Lindeman: For me, once it becomes allowed to be performed in Illinois, yes, we will do it because somebody is going to want it. And one of the most important things for me to say is, is, yes, what if we offer this type of service? Yes. Whether I agree with it or not is irrelevant to the conversation that I’m having with a family.
LINDEMAN SAID THAT THERE IS A POSSIBILITY THAT HUMAN COMPOSTING COULD BE ACCEPTED BY RELIGIONS BECAUSE OF THE HISTORY OF CREMATION.
Lindeman: When cremation first kind of got into the mainstream of the culture in this country, it wasn’t quite acknowledged as a suitable form of disposition in the major religions. But now that’s pretty much all changed. I mean, whether it’s in Catholicism or Judaism, cremation is permitted within certain specifications or certain situations.
BUT LINDEMAN ALSO BELIEVES THAT IS A BEAUTY IN CEMETERIES.
Lindeman: It gives you a sense of history. You know, I mean, it gives you a sense of community. If you go to the cemeteries, you’ll see graves from the 1800s and even beyond that, in a way. And I mean, do we really need another strip mall? We need another type of building. Do we really need another, you know, 7-Eleven somewhere? I mean because that’s what would happen, right? I mean, cemeteries are like zoos in a way, because they give you a sense of there’s a sense of something else going out in the city.
THE HUMAN COMPOSTING BILL, WHICH WAS PASSED IN THE HOUSE THIS SPRING, IS NOW HEADED TO THE SENATE, WHERE IT WILL BE STUDIED OVER THE SUMMER TO BE TAKEN UP IN THE FALL. FOR MEDILL NEWSMAKERS, I’M DAMITA MENEZES. THANKS FOR WATCHING.