What will happen to your body when you die? In Massachusetts, you have three options: to be buried, to be burned, or to donate your body to science.
But Representative Natalie Higgins, a Democrat representing Worcester’s Fourth District, has another idea. She wants to have her body turned into soil and placed outside her late great-grandparents’ house, a choice she says is better for the earth and in which she finds comfort.
“The ability to come home as soil to our land ... is something that’s really appealing,” she said. “It’s a way for us to give back to this land that has given my family so much.”
Natural organic reduction — better known as human composting — is not sanctioned in Massachusetts, but it’s a concept that is gaining traction across the United States as a more eco-friendly form of death care. New York on Saturday became the sixth state to allow the practice, and advocates hope Massachusetts will be next.
Human composting is a bit more involved than simply tossing a body into a pile of food scraps and garden waste. Instead, corpses are usually shut into containers filled with organic material like wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, and left to decompose over the course of about a month. The process yields about a cubic yard of rich soil amendment — the equivalent of about 36 bags of soil, or enough to fill the bed of one pickup truck — that can be used as fertilizer for forests, gardens, or conservation land.
Washington became the first state to allow the practice in 2019, followed by Colorado and Oregon in 2021, and Vermont and California, both of which legalized the process last year.
The practice is not technically outlawed in Massachusetts, but it’s not available to residents.
“The law is silent on it,” Higgins said.
To give residents the option, Higgins and Representative Jack Lewis, a Democrat representing Middlesex’s Seventh District, co-sponsored a 2021 bill aiming to amend the definition of cremation to include human composting, as well as alkaline hydrolysis: the process of dissolving bodies in water. The Legislature did not pass the proposal in this year’s legislative session, but the two plan to reintroduce it this month.
“It’s a choice we think absolutely should be available,” said Sandy Ward, a board member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts, which advocates for dignified, affordable death care and supports the measure.
Proponents of human composting say that death is a dirty industry. Burial, they note, pollutes earth’s ecosystems. Every year, some 4.3 million gallons of toxic embalming fluids get buried nationwide, as do 1.6 million tons of concrete and tens of thousands of tons of copper, bronze, and steel, according to Green Burial Council Inc., which oversees certification standards for cemeteries and funeral homes. Casket production also uses wood, contributing to the destruction of trees that could otherwise pull carbon from the atmosphere. The option for a “natural” or “green” burial — which does not use embalming fluid, a casket, or a burial vault — also exists in Massachusetts, but is offered only by a handful of cemeteries and still uses up a lot of land.
“When you combine the manufacturing transport of all that stuff, and then the upkeep of the cemetery, you get a pretty significant carbon footprint,” said Katrina Spade, who developed the natural organic reduction process in 2013 while in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Cremation is sometimes seen as a more environmentally responsible option. But even though it requires no embalming fluid or casket, cremation uses planet-cooking fossil fuels and also leads to carbon emissions. By one estimate, burning a single human corpse spews out an estimated 418 pounds of carbon, the equivalent of driving 470 miles in a car. An increasing number of people are choosing to be cremated, and all that pollution adds up, accounting for 1.74 billion pounds of carbon emissions each year, according to the Green Burial Council.
Advocates say natural organic reduction is a much greener alternative. According to Recompose, a Seattle-based company founded by Spade, which in 2020 became the first full-service human-composting funeral home in the nation, each person who chooses the practice can prevent more than 2,200 pounds — or one metric ton — of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The process also uses one-eighth of the energy of conventional burial or cremation, the firm says, and also helps sequester carbon into the ground, Spade said.
In addition to the ecological benefits, some find peace in the idea of a return to the soil, Lewis said. An ordained minister himself, he’s no stranger to conversations about death. Some people, he said, “can’t imagine that as their body’s final act, it’s going to be pumped full of chemicals.”
But not everyone is on board. “While not everyone shares the same beliefs with regard to the reverent and respectful treatment of human remains, we believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies,” the New York State Catholic Conference said in a statement last year.
Lewis noted that the Massachusetts bill won’t require anyone to choose human composting. But for many people, he said, it seems not only respectful but also beautiful.
“There’s something about knowing that the energy contained within their body is going to be released naturally back into the earth,” he said. “It’s the understanding that the energy once contained within the body is simply borrowed.”