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Human composting: California legalises alternative green burial option

Conventional cremations use 135 litres of fuel and pump 245 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere
Conventional cremations use 135 litres of fuel and pump 245 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere   -   Copyright  Canva   -  
By Ben Anthony Horton  with AFP

When it comes to funerals, cremation, embalming and casket burials are the most common ways of saying goodbye to our loved ones.

But from 2027, Californians will have another option - body composting.

On Saturday, the US state passed a law allowing the alternative burial method. The process is only legal in a few parts of the country - but is gaining traction fast.

It’s far more eco-friendly than traditional methods, explained Californian politician Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the new legislation.

“With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere,” she said.

What is body composting?

The body-composting process is called terramation, and uses organic reduction to convert bodies into soil. The unique form of decomposition is being introduced by US funeral care provider Return Home.

Corpses are placed in airtight vessels and surrounded by a bulking mixture of alfalfa and sawdust. These organics quickly accumulate and retain heat naturally, avoiding the costly fossil fuel expenditure of conventional crematoriums.

“Cremation takes 30 gallons (135 litres) of fuel and pumps about 540 pounds (245 kilograms) of CO2 into the atmosphere, so we've devised a system that runs about 90 per cent cleaner than that,” says Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home.

“We use a base of organics where the body is placed, and we simply close the lid. The heat keeps the microbial activity super active and at the end of a month, our body is pretty much transformed completely.

“When we’re done, we have soil that we can give the family."

Is cremation bad for the environment?

Getty Images
Annual CO2 emissions from cremations exceed 360,000 metric tonnes in the US every yearGetty Images

Conventional cremation methods require fuel to heat bodies to temperatures higher than 650 degrees Celsius.

To put this into perspective, 1.8 million Americans were cremated in 2020, with each ceremony releasing the same amount of greenhouse gas as two tanks of fuel from an average family car. As a result, annual CO2 emissions from these funerals exceeded 360,000 metric tonnes in the US alone.

Terramation offers a natural solution to this climate dilemma - returning our loved ones to the earth in a sensitive and sustainable fashion.

Cindy Armstrong’s 36-year-old son died from cancer and had asked for his remains to be composted.

“Now that I’ve gone through the process, I’m all for it,” she says.

“He didn't really like the thought of cremation. So about a year before he passed, he really researched it. And he decided that that is what he wanted. He just wanted to give back to nature."

While conventional cremation methods produce ashes for loved ones to scatter, terramation produces soil. It is a memento that can be used to fertilise gardens, farms or nearby woodland.

The practice is currently legal in just four US states: Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. But with more and more people looking to stay green in the grave, other parts of the nation are hoping to follow suit.

“We're hearing that there's about four or five additional states that currently have natural organic reduction on their books,” says Rob Goff, Executive Director of Washington State Funeral Director Association.

“For so many years, cremation or burial were the only choices. We're very fortunate to finally pass a legislative bill that allows human composting to take place."

Watch the video above to find out more about terramation.

Video editor • Ben Anthony Horton