Close this search box.

The quest to alter our ‘last toxic act’: California to legalize ‘human composting’ – ‘Natural organic reduction’ using ‘burlap bags’ of ‘mulch-like remains’,legalize%20human%20composting%20in%202020.

 Jeanette Marantos – Staff Writer 

Excerpt: But this kind of burial — natural organic reduction — won’t be legal in California until 2027, so Van Valkenburgh paid to fly her husband’s body to Washington, the first state to legalize human composting in 2020. Three months later, two women in a Subaru drove to Orcas Island and unloaded the bags of Wayne’s soil from the back seat — about 250 pounds of what looked like a fine, odorless wood-chip mulch.

The area looks bare now, Van Valkenburgh said apologetically, but someday she’ll plant bulbs. In the awkward silence that followed, her grief was palatable, but then she suddenly threw back her head and stared up above the trees. “This is what he sees,” she said softly, gazing into a purple-black sky slowly freckling with stars. …

Towering Pacific madrone trees and Douglas fir appeared like ghostly shapes around the area where, months earlier, friends and family had emptied seven burlap bags that held Wayne’s mulch-like remains and raked them into a dry sprawling puddle under the trees. …

Our last toxic act

The American approach to death and burials has changed dramatically over the last century — from families putting loved ones in a simple box in the ground to expensive, elaborate funerals involving poisonous embalming chemicals, concrete or lead grave liners and land that’s increasingly hard to find in urban areas.

Over the last few decades, however, more Americans have chosen cremation — 61% in 2023 — for its ease and much lower cost. You can arrange for a direct cremation — one without a service or other trimmings — for under $1,000, compared with the country’s median burial costs of nearly $8,000 (not including cemetery fees for vaults and plots).

But cremation is also an environmental nightmare, requiring huge amounts of energy to incinerate bodies into a highly alkaline and salty ash detrimental to plants and soil in concentrated amounts. Plus, cremation gives off so much carbon dioxide that the South Coast Air Quality Management District limits the number that can be performed every month in California’s largest metropolitan region — caps it had to suspend in early 2021 when the death rate more than doubled due to COVID 19.

“The truth is, the last gesture most of us will make on this earth is toxic,” human composting pioneer Katrina Spade wrote in 2016, when she applied for a grant to investigate the feasibility of composting human bodies in the United States.

Now, with 60% of Americans saying they would prefer greener options for burial, we appear poised for another major shift, said Sarah Chavez, founder of the Death Positive movement, which advocates for “honest conversations” about death and dying.

“Over a hundred years ago, there was no funeral industry. People took care of their own dead,” Chavez said. We’ve outsourced that job over the years, to our detriment, she said, as though whisking a body away can somehow relieve our loss.

Depending on the mortuary, the cost of human composting can range from $4,950 at Earth and Return Home to $7,000 at Recompose. People from out of state must also cover costs like transportation and preparing an unembalmed body to be safely shipped. Return Home’s partner Clarity charges Southern Californians $6,950, plus the cost of air freight to ship the body to Seattle, about $410 on Alaska Airlines, plus taxes and security screening fees. Once Earth opens its facility in Nevada, it will only charge Southern Californians $4,950, without additional transportation charges, because it’s closer to the region, said communications director Haley Morris. …