Composting the Dead Devalues the Importance of the Living
Starting in 2027, California will allow composting of the dead. Known officially as “natural organic reduction (NOR),” this novel final disposition process transforms the deceased’s body into soil to spread on gardens or in which to plant flowers or a tree.
Liquefication is another increasingly popular means of body disposal. “Alkaline hydrolysis” liquefies the body’s soft tissues over a period of about 12 hours, after which the sterile liquid is poured into the sewage system, or perhaps, used as a fertilizer. All that remains afterward are the bones and teeth, which are crushed into a powder. Liquefaction is now legal in 21 states, and soon will be in more.
Both these alternatives to traditional burial or cremation are touted by their boosters as “green,” meaning fewer global warming emissions generated than cremating, none of the toxic chemicals used in embalming, and no taking up space in a graveyard that could be used by the living. They may also be far less expensive than traditional mortuary services, which is certainly a factor in their increasing acceptance.
Maybe it’s my age, but I can’t help feeling disquieted by these non-funeral trends. On the one hand, I suppose one could say, what does it matter? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt to dirt, sewage to sewage: Bodies must be processed.
But on the other, there’s something ultimately diminishing about grandpa in a flowerpot. Indeed, it seems to me that these methods to unceremoniously eradicate the body convey a powerful symbolic message that we are essentially nothing more than carbon atoms gathered temporarily in a rational and animated form. Since life doesn’t ultimately matter in the material scheme of things, what difference does it make whether we bury, burn, liquify, or compost what are, after all, merely inanimate flesh and bones?
Corpses are that to be sure—but that isn’t all they are. Human dignity matters even after we die. That’s why law and tradition require that corpses be handled with respect. For example, it’s against the Geneva Convention to desecrate the bodies of enemy combatants. Having sex with a cadaver is a serious crime. Grave and cemetery vandalization are illegal and viewed as violating something sacred. We cover the remains of people who just died to preserve their privacy—even though the dead are quite beyond awareness of being exposed. In these and myriad other ways, we accord our deceased respect not accorded to the bodies of animals. It’s a way to honor their lives and our shared humanity.
As an ultimate example, look at how important the pomp and ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was to millions of people around the world. Imagine the different sense that would have been conveyed if her remains had merely been poured into London’s water treatment system. How diminishing would that have been to the essence of what she represented?
In this sense, these novel means of disposition shatter the continuity of human existence. The author and moral thinker Joseph Bottum got me thinking about this issue several years ago in an essay about the increasing popularity of what he called “anonymous death,” writing, “The modern failure of funerals serves as both a cause and a symptom of the shattering of culture, first into the nuclear family, then into atomized individuals, and at last into nothingness … where the dead are abandoned without ceremony in deliberately unmarked graves, or their corpses are cremated with the ashes spread across large and indifferent spaces.”
Bottum is saying that with the loss of graves and urn niches—and surely, by pouring remains into the sewer—we deprive ourselves of connecting with the entire sweep of humanity, not just the past to us, but also for those who will live in the future, with us.
That’s why ancient graveyards exert a poignant force, and we may grow emotional at the endless rows of headstones in large Veterans Cemeteries. More intimately, many find great meaning or comfort in visiting the graves of their loved ones or forebears. I have experienced this in a personal way. My maternal grandfather died decades before I was born. Being able to visit his grave made his life concrete and connected me powerfully with my familial roots. Had he been disposed of anonymously he would always have been a mere abstraction.
Treating the dead with great respect also reflects the belief that our importance continues even after we die. Religionists believe that there is more to come beyond the grave, and that how we live has a direct impact on that future existence. This hope is reflected in funeral ceremonies and other death memorials.
In contrast, these new means of disposition may reflect a profoundly—and in my view, unhealthy—anti-metaphysical impetus. Secularization is diminishing how we view both the importance of life and the meaning of death. At its most reductionist, materialists insist our lives have no ultimate meaning. Turning human bodies into so much sewage certainly would seem to reflect that view. In this regard, why not go all-in for efficiency, as in the dystopian movie “Soylent Green’s classic climactic utterance, “Soylent Green is people!”?
Hyperbole aside, I’m not arguing that composting and liquefication be banned. People should normally have a right to be put to rest in the way they want so long as it’s safe and hygienic—which, ironically, respects the persons they once were. I want to be buried without embalming in a simple wooden coffin as my Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition directs. If I want my preferences respected, I have to honor the wishes of those who think differently from me.
But I do worry: If our remains come to be perceived as merely so much waste to be disposed of as quickly and efficiently as possible, if our disposition practices reflect a widespread belief that we were merely intelligent meat, if we really come to see ourselves as unworthy of anything greater than anonymous death, we will be tempted, in life, to treat one another accordingly.