Composting the Deceased/ My DIY Funeral Fantasies

compostgrave

When I die, I want to return to the elements. In the best case scenario, I’ll be food. I mean, I suppose the bacteria get us all, unless we’re cremated, but I don’t want to be locked inside a coffin, with most of my potential nutrient value going to waste.  This obsession has led to several funeral fantasies, which I like share with Erik spontaneously, usually while we’re grocery shopping or something, much to his dismay. I think he’s pretty much praying statistics will hold true and he’ll predecease me.

Fantasy 1:  A longstanding fantasy is that I be disposed of “Viking style”, i.e., being laid out in a boat (a rowboat would do, seeing as Viking longboats are hard to come by) and burnt on the water with Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song cranked in the background. Skál!

But now I know two things. One is that the Vikings buried their dead in boats–they did not burn them. Probably because that method wouldn’t work very well, and Vikings were practical folk. You can’t generate sufficient heat in an open boat to render the body to ash, so (best case scenario) the body will end up in the water, which is okay (as far as I, the deceased would be concerned, see fantasy #2) but not such a good thing for anyone who finds my barbequed corpse floating about, nor such a good thing in smaller bodies of water, where I’d be a pollutant.

A low end version of this would be setting my ashes afloat in a wicker basket and using it for target practice with flaming arrows, while the Immigrant Song plays. Not great, because my ash is feeding no one, and it cost a lot of BTUs to turn me to ash, but at least I’d not be in a coffin, and there would be fire and arrows.

Fantasy 2: As a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s novels of Royal Navy life in the 18th and early 19th centuries, I’d be totally happy to be wrapped in a piece of sailcloth with a ball of roundshot between my feet, and then tipped overboard into the briny deep. I’d love to feed the fishes.

Turns out this is actually possible! I will not be saluted by the dashing officers of the quarterdeck, but my shrouded body can be pitched overboard at sea. It’s a thing! It’s called a “full-body maritime burial”.  In the U.S. you just need to be in Federal Waters, at least 3 miles off shore and in water at least 600 ft. deep. It turns out there’s a joint that works out of Long Beach Harbor which does this for you. Erik, are you taking notes?

Fantasy 3: Composting. I’d love to be composted. Compost is life, and it is what I’d most like my body to become when I die. But I used to imagine that the only way to successfully compost a human body would be to first break it down into a manageable pile of nitrogen by sending  it through a chipper/shredder (the head! I know!)– which would be very distressing to the bereaved –though no skin off my deceased nose. So to speak.

In my imaginings of an enlightened future in which we’d all be composted, the chipper/shredder would be artfully re-branded as the “Unity Machine” So instead of saying, “Toss the old gal into the chipper” you’d say, “Pass her through the Unity Machine, so she might quickly return to the Earth.” Much nicer.

But it turns out that you may not need the chipper after all. I just came across some old notes containing a method for composting human or animal remains. This is the source of the diagram at top.

This would be highly illegal, no doubt, so I hesitate to say where I learned this.

And I have no idea if it would work.

The knowledge was passed through a line of teachers committed to the soil (…I heard it from X, who heard it from Y, who heard it from Z …)  I don’t know if any of them has actually tried this, or if this is all theoretical. In other words, This is presented for entertainment purposes only!

I will say that I was told that the ultimate source of the idea was Malcolm Beck. Now, I don’t know if Malcolm Beck developed this specific methodology I’m sharing with you or not, but in my researches I have found this essay by him on his own longing for composting burials, titled Pushing Up Daisies. In it, he points out that even a large body will not last long in an active compost pile, but he does not speak of this specific method I’m sharing with you today.

I don’t want to either steal his credit for this idea or saddle him with it. I’ll just say he was mentioned when I learned this. And if he did not develop the method, I expect he’d appreciate the spirit of thing.

So, the following instructions and the diagram above are the totality of my notes and knowledge of the subject:

A Hypothetical Method of Composting Humans or Animals:

  1. This is entirely above ground.
  2. First you build a platform of sticks/small logs to provide drainage and aeration, about 1.5 feet high.
  3. The deceased is placed on the stick pile.
  4. The body is covered with a 1 foot layer of mixed greens and browns–the makings of compost.
  5. Then over that goes a massive pile of carbonaceous material (“browns”: dry leaves, wood shavings, etc.). This layer is to be 10 to 12 feet deep. Huge!  It’s role is to absorb putrefying gases.
  6. Let the pile sit for two years.
  7. Every month or so, go out and sniff around. If you smell anything, add more carbon.

I’d be tempted to use a thicker layer of compost directly on the body.  One foot doesn’t seem enough – but I’m not sure what sort of reaction would occur between the “purifying layer”– as its called in my notes–and the thick carbon layer. It may be enough to create a hot zone all around.

If I lived on a nice spread somewhere out in the country, I’d test this out on roadkill as an experiment. On an unfortunate opossum, say. I would not try it with a beloved pet (much less a relative!) because I well remember the day my dogs dug up my hamster, Feisty, from his quiet grave and returned his dessicated body to my feet.  In other words, the pile seems prone to predation.

In Pushing Up Daisies, Malcom Beck envisions big, portable, wire mesh composting bins designed for funerary purposes.  Something like that would be appropriate here, as well.

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46 Comments

  1. Your post made me think of those forensic science outdoor laboratories where you can donate your body and let it decompose naturally. I think I first heard about them from an episode of Stephen Fry in America. Anyway, always seemed more natural to me then getting put in lead vault or something.

    The University of Tennessee has one: http://fac.utk.edu/donation.html

    Soylent Green is people. :)

    • If I lived (or rather, died) close to one of those research facilities, that would definitely be an option. I’ve always had a soft spot for forensic anthropology.

  2. After enduring the putrefying gasses of my neighbor’s illegal cat burial last summer i would encourage a larger pile placed far far away from the house. There is nothing that smells like that

  3. Burial without a coffin is against the law in the United States. Cremation, my personal choice, is currently the most eco-friendly way to be buried.

  4. The Torah procedure for burial is exactly what you’re talking about. No coffin or one of simple, thin, untreated, easily decaying wood only; no embalming; no hindrances of any kind to the quick decomposition of the body.

    The reasons for this are detailed in the Kabbalah and Chassidic texts. The intention is the quick rectification of the material body and spiritual soul so they each may return to their sources: the body to the earth and the soul to its spiritual root and then on up, higher and higher and closer and closer to God’s Essence.

    Wow, thanks. Your post was the best Monday morning focus for a great, productive week of work down here on Earth.

    • I’ve always admired traditional Jewish burial practice for this reason. And yes, I’m trying to remind myself that its time to get to work!

  5. It is legal to bury a body without coffin. We buried my husband’s unembalmed body on private land in NC, wrapped in a shroud. In NC, the hole only has to be deep enough to cover the body by at least 36 inches of soil. Many of the “have-to’s” about burials are untruths promulgated by funeral directors to make more money. Google “green burials” and you’ll find lots of good info.

    • Condolences on your husband’s passing. It is a wonderful thing to be able to bury your loved ones as you wish. I wonder if there’s a comprehensive book out on green, diy burials? I will have to ask Mr. Google. It seems there should be.

  6. The book “Stiff” talks about the outdoor laboratories. Fascinating read.

    I’m an apprentice funeral director and did my final paper on funeral pyres and natural burial. Funeral pyres are, sadly, illegal, cuz really what a way to go! Natural burials, however are not, you just have to create the right circumstances.

    If you have enough property, you can have a “Family burial plot” on your land. You have to get permits of course, and they have to be clearly marked, but it’s doable.

    There are also a couple of natural cemeteries in Cali, not sure exactly where though. Your concept could be modified by setting up in a traditional grave, or perhaps creating a ‘vault’ around the compost pile that can be removed once you’re dirt.

  7. I enjoyed your very wise post. I personally think that the present burial system sucks and money is the name of the game. I believe that the old way of respectfully placing the body in the ground without the outlandishly expensive casket is much more sensible and personal. Caskets are a way to distance ourselves from what is happening.
    Meanwhile I want the song “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum!
    Oh yes, bodies of animals do not smell if placed deep enough as they should always be to prevent animal like coyotes from digging them up. I have always buried my animals in my yard. And have always first checked as to regulations for such. Hopefully “times they are a changing”.

    • “Spirit in the Sky” was playing on the car radio when my aunt called to tell me that my grandmother passed last year. :)

  8. what a wonderful post. I think id like to have “Ramble On” playing while my ashes are spread from a WA state ferry.

  9. When I knew my beloved companion dog was dying, I knew I wanted to bury her at home, but was completely unable to find good information on how to do that safely and legally at home. To get that information too, well, a lot of digging… It turns out that it is legal for pets, even in the city.

    To avoid any chance of either inappropriate odors, or worse, having raccoons or other varmints dig her body up, it turns out that the legal “rule of thumb” for how deep to make the grave is to make it as many feet deep as the animal is from nose to tail (in her case almost five feet deep) I think this is the same rule of thumb that call for human graves to be “six feet under”…

    It was really odd to be digging her grave with her still alive, but I knew it was more than I could do myself, so organised a work party of friends to help. One useful hint, should anyone ever find themselves doing suchlike, is to dig steps into the earth next to the actual grave, makes getting in and out whilst digging easier. I will mention that our soil is loamy and we have excellent drainage, other types of soil might not be as appropriate…

    After the end of her life, we had a wake, and a lot of the same people came to send her on her journey as she was laid to rest, wrapped in her blanket outside the house she guarded faithfully all her life. Would that my own body could be treated so personally at the end of my own life… And for those concerned, there have been no untoward smells or problems in the intervenening years…

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I agree, that is beautiful burial, and a fine solution. My own dog’s ashes are still in the house. I meant to bury them in the yard, but he always wanted to be inside, so he stays in a little box in the living room. But honestly, I think it’s time he was returned to the earth.

      Thanks too, for the practical info. Good to know about depth – and stairs!

    • Oh, this is really cool stuff. Instructions and everything! Thanks! Yes, if pigs, why not me?

    • There’s another similar report put out by Cornell University. I think they have a lot of the same info as the Iowa State document, but the Cornell version has some broader applications and morbidly entertaining illustrations. :-) (I can’t access Part 2 to this post for some reason, so apologies if you’ve already covered this one.)

      http://compost.css.cornell.edu/naturalrenderingFS.pdf

      Another option might be to turn yourself into biochar! I read a paper on it this spring (for animal butchering waste) and wrote up a little blurb a few weeks ago. You might be able to remain ‘identifiable’ in the soil for longer as biochar than as compost.

      http://homesteadlaboratory.blogspot.com/2013/10/biochar-from-butchering-waste.html

      Personally, I can’t decide between being charcoal or compost. They both seem like good options!

  10. Mrs. H,
    You made me laugh so hard. Have you considered The Body Farm in Tennessee? I think you could rot nicely in an atmosphere that does not even mind smells. If you wanted a home procedure, you could be placed in a dog pen like I have–10 x 10 x 6 feet. It would be one huge compost bin. Your Viking fantasy had me envisioning it floating down the Mississippi. I can imagine the consternation this must cause Erik!

    Okay, I just cannot help laughing even though burial is a serious matter. These pesky raccoons go off to the landfill, so why could there not be a big communal people landfill?

  11. A composting expert told me about an injured deer she had to shoot on her farm. She decided to experiment with the carcass, placing it on a compost pile and liberally sprinkling it with bokashi grains before covering it with the usual “greens and browns”. She’d been told that bokashi decomposed meat, bones etc very well, but had never tried it.

    A few months later she carefully pulled the pile apart to see how things were progressing. The carcass was completely gone! Not even bones remained!

    She was completely amazed, and more than a little freaked. It’d be a pretty easy way to dispose of a body.

  12. The book Grave Matters set me on the search for a green burial option for Richard (he was on hospice for a long time so we had time to figure it all out). The Funeral Consumers Alliance (http://www.funerals.org/) was a good resource for us, especially rules & regs. The wonderful people at the Center for End of Life Transitions (http://ceolt.wordpress.com/) gave us information, support and technical assistance in caring for his body ourselves. It was a really wonderful experience.

  13. Mrs. H,

    What a thoughtful (and humorous) post!

    It reminds me of my own similar realization a few years ago, which I captured here: http://www.unwovenrainbow.net/blog/2009/10/15/i-laid-her-body-there/

    No preservation by chemicals and burial in a box. Not even incineration, with ashes spread somewhere nice. After I’m dead, I would like my body to be returned, as directly and beneficially as possible, to the natural world from which it came.

    I hadn’t seen Malcom Beck’s site – thanks!

  14. Three words: Tibetan Sky Burial. The monks chop/smash your bones and body up into little pieces, then feed them to vultures on the mountainside. It is considered a final giving of one’s self in the Buddhist tradition, and very handy in a place like Tibet where the ground is too hard to bury people. I highly doubt it’s legal anywhere in the Western world, but a girl can dream!

    • P.S. I’m really glad I’m not the only one who spends their idle moments thinking about the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of my corpse. Thank you for making me feel a little less lonely.

  15. I read about this several years ago and thought it would be a great way to go- straight into the food chain with no opportunity for problems caused by funky smells or marauding German Shephards. Unfortunately, the fuel expenditures to lug my remains from Cincinnati to Lhasa and beyond, would probably take it out of the “green burial” category.

    As for the music, I think a nice stateside sendoff might be “Katmandu” by Bob Seger (it’s close enough). Graveside-so to speak-”Fly like an Eagle” by Steve Miller would be a good choice, or maybe a little Pink Floyd–”Great Gig in the Sky”.

    Thanks for another great post!

  16. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I had planned on being buried in a cardboard box, unembalmed of course, but now I am thinking an organic shroud is better – never thought it was an option!
    And burial at sea would be great if I lived near the ocean… I too am a huge Patrick O’Brian fan :)

  17. It’s quite common on organic farms to compost entire animals including horses and cows. Joel Salatin and Kristin Kimball have mentioned it in their writings, as have others. It’s definitely not a new practice, but one that goes back centuries. If one can compost a horse, why not a human? Composting would be my preference, too, with the Tibetan sky burial as a distant second. I wouldn’t want to see my local mountains become littered with body parts, but there are already several commercial composting companies in my area, so it would be fairly easy to add to their service offerings, but for the legal issues.

  18. @Kristina
    @Sydney
    @ ET

    Being exposed and nibbled on, whether Tibetan-style, or in a Tower of Silence, or up on a platform, would probably rank 4th in my fantasy line-up. I cut it for length, and also, I don’t mention it to Erik because it might be pushing him a bit too far. ;)

    On the subject — have you heard about the appalling destruction of vultures in India? It’s old news, but new to me. 99% of them gone, because of a livestock drug. This has interfered with the Zoroastrians there, who traditionally rely on vultures for their funeral practices. And of course, it must by playing holy havoc with the ecosystem/public health. Who’s on clean-up duty if the vultures are gone? Worst thing is, even though they know what’s up now, some farmers still use the drug.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/sep/06/diclofenac-india-cattle-vultures

    • I saw the Towers of Silence on a trip to India as a teenager. I thought it seemed eminently sensible, far better than adding to the pollution of the rivers with potentially unsuccessful funeral pyres…
      We also saw the ‘Hanging Gardens’, so called because they cover the city’s open reservoirs. When you have the Towers of Silence next to an open water source you don’t want the vultures to drop anything…

      And yes, the decline in the vulture numbers is horrifying.

      I think about this sort of thing much to my husband’s amusement, and my current compromise is a (recycled) cardboard or willow coffin. Much as I’d like to be composted, I’d also like to be laid to rest in my village churchyard, and I think a compromise might be necessary for that.

  19. We used to compost the occasional cow who would die of illness or age on our family’s dairy farm. I don’t know exactly how they made the piles, but I believe it was something pretty similar to your diagram, sometimes they were buried but often they were placed into the center of an above ground compost pile. It would take them a while (like a year or more) to break down, but they would eventually break down into some really nice compost. If an adult holstein cow can be composted in something like that,I’m sure a person could be.

  20. Kelly Coyne you are my BRAIN TWIN. For real. I have been working on a proposal for a public park whose centerpiece is a human composting facility. Like an alternative cemetery. A place of peace and contemplation and decomposing human matter. The “Humains” will then enrich the soil around the fruit trees and food plants that we all share, so we will in effect be eating each other!!!!
    It is in the beginning stages, but these things occupy my mind as well. I like the drama of large gestures, hence the public nature of it all. Hopefully, we will all return to the earth as a food source for everything that comes after us rather than being a bloated, scary corpse in a really expensive box buried next to other frightening corpse boxes!!!

  21. Actually, a lot of us think about this stuff. My first choice is to just realize when its a good day to die, and crawl out into the forest where the critters can have at me and the rest can return to the Earth. The most probable, is I’ll be in civilization where someone will be keeping an eye on me. In which case I’ll arrange for my body to be donated for harvesting any and all useful parts. Such organizations haul off the body, and cremate the remains, usually at no charge to the families. Cremains can be returned to the family or dumped in some memorial garden they usually keep for the purpose.

  22. Pingback: DIY Funerals Part 2: Swine Composting | Root Simple

  23. I’m a trans person with an archaeology degree – I want to be cremated. I want nothing left of my body, which has caused me so much distress. I don’t need it any more. If the doctors want any of my organs they’re welcome to them.

    Seriously, I don’t want a future archaeologist examining my remains and declaring me a gender which I don’t identify as and don’t live as.

  24. An artist in the UK whose work I love just posted a link to another UK artist friend of hers who specializes in felted wool creations – and one of her products is a woolen “Eco-Coffin” she calls the Leafcocoon. Her design apparently won the “Good Funeral Guide Coffin Supplier Award” for this year.

    Here’s her main website, which has some detail of the coffin, as well as the page for it:

    http://bellacouche.com/

    http://bellacouche.com/soft-eco-coffin/

  25. If you are afraid of any odors from being composted, the process can be sped up quite a bit by charging the soil / burial grounds with a few volts of electricity. It has been found that this increases microbial activity and thus would be a sure way to accelerate the entire process.

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