Body composting, a more sustainable alternative to burial and cremation, is becoming something of a trend in the United States. With Colorado and Washington passing legislation to make the process legal earlier this year, Oregon has given the go ahead for the unorthodox procedure to be undertaken in the state from July 2022.

The process begins with the body placed in a timber vessel, typically lined with waterproofed materials and packed with wood chips and straw. Immediately after the body is placed in the vessel, it must remain at 55 degrees celsius for 3 days in order to kill any bacteria and pathogens inside the body. After three months, the vessel is opened with the ‘soil’ created from the composted body utilised for a number of medical devices, such as pacemakers and prosthetics. The remaining bones are then pulverised and placed once more in the vessel for another three months. The teeth are also removed in order to prevent contamination from the mercury used for fillings. 

By the time the composting is completed in six months, there will be enough soil from the body, wood chips and straw to fill the tray of a pickup truck. While families are able to spread the soil through their yards and gardens, the state of Colorado forbids the selling of the soil to grow food. The state allows only funeral parlours and crematories to undertake the composting process.

The Natural Funeral Team, located in Colorado, is one of several funeral parlours offering people the opportunity to have their body composted. Co-owner, Seth Viddal, says the procedure is far more normal than some people believe it to be.

"Composting itself is a very living function and it's performed by living organisms," he says.

"There are billions of microbial, living things in our digestive tracts and just contained in our body, so when our one life ceases, the life of those microbes does not cease.”

Viddal says the process is not too dissimilar from composting food scraps.

"It's a natural process where the body is returned to an elemental level over a short period of time," he says.

"This (composting food scraps) is the same process but done with a human body inside of a vessel and, in our case, in a controlled environment.”

Body composting is not without its detractors though. A number of religious groups have spoken out against the procedure, with The Colorado Catholic Conference claiming it “does not promote human dignity.” A number of Jewish religious figures have also outlined their position, believing the procedure violates Jewish religious law.

In comparison to cremation and burial, composting emits zero emissions into the environment. Cremation burns fossil fuels which contribute to emissions, while a body being buried requires space for a grave site, with a number of resources needed in order to maintain a burial ground. 

In Washington, where body composting is now legal, approximately 85 bodies have been composted by three licensed companies. More than 900 people have signed up for the service in the state. The Natural Funeral Team, of which Viddal co-owns, charges $7,900USD for composting, which lands somewhere between cremation ($2,200 USD) and traditional burial ($10,000 USD). The company says, despite not composting any bodies, that it has had several people sign up for the service.