Ultimate composting

I have mentioned before that I’m going to write a “death plan” … not a handbook on how to commit suicide, but a set of instructions to help guide my loved-ones when I am nearing the end of my life and after I have died.

I'd quite like to end up somewhere like this: The Sustainability Centre on the South Downs, Hampshire

I’d quite like to end up somewhere like this: The Sustainability Centre on the South Downs, Hampshire

Ideally, upon my death, I would like to have as little negative impact on the world as possible… and maybe even a positive effect. So I was interested to read today about the idea of human composting in this post by I remain hopeful. It has given me some food for thought.

My assumption has always been that burial in a ‘green’ coffin is the best way to be disposed of, but there seem to be issues related to anaerobic decomposition if buried at depth because of the production of methane when there is insufficient oxygen. My inclination is towards burial in a woodland cemetery, like the one at the Sustainability Centre and to be buried in a felted wool shroud, but is seems that this may not be the best option.

So what can be done? Well, there’s a Swedish company who have found a novel approach:

The breakthrough process takes only about six to 12 months to transform a dead body into high-nutrient compost. Here’s how it works: A corpse is first frozen to -18°C (0°F) and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. Then the frozen, brittle corpse is gently bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. That powder is then sent through a vacuum chamber that evaporates all the water.

Since water makes up about 70 percent of an adult human body, the mass of the powdery corpse becomes greatly decreased. Also, if the powder is kept dry, it will not decompose. This erases the need for a speedy burial or funeral service, and it preserves the corpse without the need for any unnatural chemicals like embalming fluids.

When it does come time for a burial, the powder can then be placed in a box of biodegradable material like corn starch and buried in a shallow grave. The mixture will create nutritious, fertile soil, perfect for planting a tree, bush or garden, depending on the desires of the next of kin.

– Bryan Nelson, Mother Nature Network

It may avoid that nasty anaerobic decomposition, but it seems to me that it’s going to require quite a lot of energy: freezing, production of liquid nitrogen, sound waves, creating a vacuum…. I’m not convinced that it’s a ‘better’ option than burial in a woodland.

Then there’s resomation. Never heard of it? Neither had I until today:

Resomation is a process that reduces human remains to mineral ash and liquid in about 2 hours, after the body is subjected to pressurization in the presence of water and salts. The remains can be returned to the family of the deceased as is done with cremation.

Carol Bengle Gilbert

Again, I’m not convinced, as it appears to be rather energy-demanding. In her post. I remain hopeful also mentions the idea of cutting bodies into manageable pieces in order that they decompose more quickly… I can’t find information about the relative speed of decomposition, but increasing the surface area would certainly increase microbial activity.

This is clearly a subject that I need to investigate more fully before making a decision, but I still think a hole in the ground is the least harmful plan.

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17 Comments

  1. I Remain Hopeful

     /  September 18, 2013

    Good post, even more for me to consider. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

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  2. Linda

     /  September 18, 2013

    This is SUCH an important topic, Jan. When I have a moment I will do some sort of rough-casting of the energy that has been used in responding to the dying, death and then management of the ‘estate’ (mainly ‘goods and chattels’) of a family member recently. It felt staggeringly wasteful at the time and I am sure there are many ways in which thinking things through beforehand would make big differences, not just in terms of how the body is returned to the Earth. A radio programme yesterday reported that on average 80% of the costs to the NHS for each person accrue during the last 2 MONTHS of their life. This needs a bit of thinking about too!

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  3. I have asked my family for a green burial when the time comes, in a cardboard coffin with a tree!

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  4. Fascinating stuff. Well done and thanks for looking into some interesting alternatives Jan. Since first thinking about planning ahead some years ago as part of bereavement training, I’ve also favoured the ‘in a hole with a tree on top’ (and a bloody good party for those still here). I’d agree that the other methods you describe appear to consume unacceptable amounts of energy. I recently met with our local cemetery manager (who started out 25 years ago as a grave digger). We were discussing the trees and increasing biodiversity at the time. I hope to forge closer links regarding the maintenance and development of the site. There are currently a lot of ailing Horse Chestnuts whose demise will leave some large gaps. I already know of apple, crab apple and sweet chestnuts growing there, so it wouldn’t be unthinkable to expand on this :o). The possible treatments of human remains will be an other interesting subject to bring up with him. x

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    • Interesting. One issue that I have seen raised is possible contamination of water courses from burials. It’s not something I have been previously aware of, but it would be interesting to hear a cemetery manager’s perspective on this.

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  5. Sharon

     /  September 19, 2013

    I had done a bit of web searching on this topic a few months ago. Resomation is starting to get approved here in Canada. Its is being called “bio-cremation” and its developers claim it uses 8 times less energy than cremation; depending on how that energy is sourced, it could be a fairly low-impact solution. One article mentioned an urban funeral director who was looking at it as a substitute for flame cremation because it produced no emissions and would therefore not be forbidden by city zoning regulations.

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    • I certainly need to track down some hard figures about the different options… seems like they are a bit scarce. I haven’t yet discovered whether resomation is available in the UK, but there is certainly great interest in ‘natural burials’ and lots of sites are starting to open.

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  6. You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I am going to recommend this blog!

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