Samantha Maldonado, The City
This article was originally published on May 17 5:00am EDT by THE CITY
Eggshells, apple cores and lawn trimmings aren’t the only things that can be composted — human bodies can be, too.
When Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill in December legalizing human composting, New York became the sixth state to allow it as an option, alongside traditional burial and cremation, for what is called “death care.”
Human composting may eventually offer an environmentally friendly solution for what to do with people’s bodies after they die, especially in New York City where space for burials is scarce. But it’s a long way from actually being available in New York.
First, officials must hammer out regulatory details, and cemetery and funeral directors will need to acquire materials and prepare facilities for the process, if they wish to offer it.
The Division of Cemeteries, which is part of the New York Department of State, along with the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation are working to come up with rules to govern the process — officially known as natural organic reduction. Draft regulations are due by June 28.
Already, Hochul included language in April’s budget laying out which entities can offer the service and how they should treat the composted remains.
New York is joining just a handful of states where human composting is permitted.
Oregon, California and Vermont legalized the practice last year, but it’s not happening there yet. Only Washington and Colorado have facilities offering the service, drawing survivors who spend thousands of dollars to fly in their loved ones’ bodies from out-of-state to ensure they transform into nutrient-rich soil.
Courtney Vick was one of them. She first heard of human composting when her partner of eight years, Greg Fischer, showed her an online video explaining what it was. They lived in Phoenix, but the process had just been legalized in his home state of Oregon.
“He said, ‘It’s sort of like being rotisserie-chickened. You go into this alien pod, they cover you with organic matter,’” Vick, 41, said she remembered Fischer telling her.
Given his goofy irreverence and typical Pacific Northwestern concern for the environment, it made sense that he was intrigued, Vick said.
Months later, in May of last year, Fischer had a lethal heart attack out of the blue at age 51. Despite the shock, Vick knew what to do: With the help of an Arizona-based funeral home, she shipped his body to a facility in Seattle, run by the company Recompose, to be composted.
“He loved this idea when he heard about it, so it did feel good to honor something he would’ve liked. He was a sort of different, cutting-edge person,” Vick said.
Suitable for Sharing
About a decade ago, for her architecture graduate thesis at UMass Amherst, Recompose owner Katrina Spade conceived of a human composting facility set in New York City.
She had been fascinated by natural burial, a process in which a body is placed directly into the ground or buried inside a biodegradable casket. Nature takes over, and the body degrades. It avoids the use of toxic embalming fluids that can seep into soil and contaminate groundwater, as well as materials that are carbon-intensive to produce, like concrete that lines graves to prevent the ground from caving in.
But any type of burial requires ample land.
“For that reason, it can’t serve the billions of people that live in our urban centers, and so my question with composting was, could this be the urban solution to the same problem?” Spade said. “Could this be like a way to return to the earth, in our cities?”
Human composting takes place in a container. The body is laid in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa and straw and left for 30 to 40 days, after which anything non-organic — like a titanium hip — is removed for recycling. Bones are taken out to be pulverized and later reincorporated into the mix. Everything cures for another two to four weeks. The process, using Spade’s method, takes about two months from start to finish.
She said there is no putrid smell of decay, and the aeration system filters the air before it leaves the facility.
At the end, family members can pick up as much as they want of the resulting compost, which is enough to fill the bed of a truck and, except for some bits of hair and bone, is nearly indistinguishable from that made of veggie scraps.
Vick traveled to Seattle with members of Fischer’s family to pick up the soil her partner’s body had become. She worried that the compost would fly out of the truck bed if the tarp covering it broke, but a friend joked it would be like the scene in one of Fischer’s favorite movies, “The Big Lebowski.” In it, a character played by John Goodman pours cremated ashes from a Folgers Coffee canister off a cliff, but the wind blows them into the face of a character played by Jeff Bridges.
Now Vick keeps some of Fischer’s composted remains in a Folgers can on her mantle, as an homage to the movie they both loved. She plans to use more of it in her backyard and take some with her to scatter on future travels. His brother placed some compost at their childhood home and will plant a tree in their mother’s yard nourished with the material. Fischer’s obituary instructed people to “BYOB (bring your own bucket)” to pick up the compost.
“Tons of people have taken little bits of him, so it pulled people together to do fun things with his body in a way that burial and cremation can’t,” Vick said. “I have one friend who put him in her house on a money tree. Money didn’t have much of a meaning to him, but he really loved puns, so the fact that he’s a money tree houseplant makes me smile.”
The Cost of Composting
Vick paid $8,700 for Recompose’s service and to ship Fischer’s body to the facility. She said it was about twice as expensive as cremation but about half the price of burial, based on her research.
That cost is prohibitive for the handful of families that have inquired with her about composting a deceased loved one, according to Erica Hill, owner of the Sparrow funeral home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Sparrow can make arrangements for composting out of state, where it’s available.
“Right now it’s not that feasible for a lot of families in New York. They’ve all ended up opting not to do that, and all of them have opted for cremation instead,” Hill said. She thinks once the service is offered locally, cutting out the cost of flights, more people may take advantage of it.
“I think once it’s available here in New York, we’ll have a lot of people interested in it,” said Hill. “I’m totally excited about it. I think it’s amazing, and I think the more we can bring green practices into every part of our lives, the better for the planet.”
That’s true for Virgil Wong, an artist and digital health technologist who lives in the East Village. He wants his death to be consistent with the ideals that he tries to live up to: “To do no harm and perhaps do some good,” Wong said. For that reason, he isn’t interested in being buried or cremated when he dies.
“I was recycling back in high school in the ’90s, so the idea of, like, leaving such waste just seems so anathema to my being,” he said. “If we are leaving behind this form, the idea of it not having a deleterious impact on the environment to me seems like a good thing.”
Wong, 49, has started budgeting for his death care, figuring he’ll spend around $10,000, also taking into account the cost of shipping his body.
Investing in a Brand New Business
The expense isn’t just a concern for families interested in pursuing composting. It’s also a barrier for the cemeteries and funeral homes, which need to invest in the composting equipment and have the space to it, which may require renovating or building a facility.
The head of a crematory in Queens who didn’t want to be named said he’d be interested in offering human composting but does not have the room.
Joseph Lucchese, president of an eponymously named funeral home in The Bronx, said he’d like to offer human composting, but too many questions about practicality and demand remain unanswered to know for sure.
“Because it’s brand new here, I don’t think that anybody knows what they need as far as equipment, what they need as far as storage and handling of the body,” Lucchese said. “Are cemeteries and funeral homes willing to invest however much it’ll cost for the equipment for a service they might use rarely, if ever?”
His funeral home began offering natural burial about six or seven years ago — with burials taking place at Riverview Natural Burial Grounds of New York, a part of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in the Hudson Valley.
That cemetery has no plans to offer human composting, nor has anyone asked about it, according to Cristina Orban-La Salle, Sleepy Hollow’s director of visitor services and sales.
For now, composting human remains is available only in the West. And New York’s adoption of the technique will be informed by processes elsewhere, according to Lewis Polishook, director of the New York Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries, who took a trip to Seattle in March to visit three composting facilities. (DOS did not make Polishook available for an interview.)
While human composting has yet to take off widely, Vick said she hopes it does — and she plans to become compost when she dies, too. Interacting with and sharing Fischer’s physical being as compost has helped her grieve, she said.
“Instead of being ash that has no value…it’s nutrient-rich compost and can help something else grow,” Vick said. “He’s still here, just in a different form.”
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