DIY Funerals Part 2: Swine Composting

composting diagram

This image from “Composting for Mortality Disposition” by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. I have no idea what’s going on there, exactly–I meanm wouldn’t that pile be as big a house? — but I like that it looks like the  Noah’s Ark of Death.

In the comments on my last post, several people pointed out that farm animals are often composted. I did not know this!  I’m from the city, so there’s lots of stuff I don’t know. Like the difference between hay and straw. Anyway, this is exciting, because it brings me closer to being composted. (In my funereal fantasy world, at any rate)

One of the commenters, Raleigh Rancher, kindly sent along a link to Composting Swine Mortalities in Iowa, a publication of the Iowa State University Extension Program. Thank you, Raleigh!  What a trove of information! It has how-to’s, and a FAQ.

I also googled “swine composting” and found that there is in fact a ton of information out there, and most of it from respectable university extension services, not crazy DIYers like me.  And now  I truly am confused. If farm animals are getting composted all the time, and that compost is being spread on cropland, why can’t we be composted and put to good use?

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  1. We can be composted! Maybe CA’s laws are different as I’m on the other side of the country in FL, but I actually recently wrote a post about green burials and the Prairie Creek Conservatiom Cemetary which is a green burial site in Alachua, FL. No embalming allowed there.

    • Sure, there’s green burial — ie in a shroud or simple wooden casket, no embalming — and that’s fantastic–it is high on my list of options. But I mean mixing my remains with organic matter, as in a compost pile, so I break down quickly, and the resulting material can be spread on the surface of the soil to nourish plants and soil life.

  2. Why shouldn’t we be composted and put to good use?

    The ancient texts tell us that the right of burial was earned by Yafet, one of Noah’s three sons, and that right is passed on to his progeny. That includes you.

    The spiritual source of the human body is actually higher than the source of the soul. The body is not just another piece of meat but something very, very special in this world (and after)!

    What’s more, all people can merit resurrection. Not a good idea to recycle the mortal coil according to our understanding (cremation, therefore, is a no-no). Better to let The Force handle it His-Her-Its own, unique, time-tested way.

  3. Until recently, people in the US *were* composted. They were buried unembalmed in a wooden casket that kept out animals, at a depth that discouraged animal scavenging. In a year or two, the family or a graveyard custodian would come by and fill in the depression left by the decomposed body and casket. As far as I know, no one dug them up and spread them on the garden, but they certainly enriched a spot of earth. Many large bushes and trees grow happily in old graveyards. As Charlei points out above, this is still possible in many places, but advance planning is crucial. Your near and dear also have to understand your arrangements so that you get interred in a prompt (ie not too smelly or leaky) a manner. (Sorry, Mr. Homegrown!) Good luck with your research!

    • I had to chuckle when you said, “Many large bushes and trees grow happily in old graveyards” because this brought to mind the bush planted near the dead body in the movie Practical Magic. The bush would not stop growing out of control.
      All this ‘composting’ would be good for the earth! But no chemicals please. And my question would be how do we get rid of the bones? I’d be pretty startle if I found human bones when I went to put in my fruit tree. Do we just pile everyone up on top of each other? Would we run out of space?

    • @Morningglory,

      You’re bringing out my morbid side! In old, old cemeteries, bodies were put directly in the ground in simple shrouds. The cemeteries would fill up, and when it did, they’d take out the old bones, which would be in a mixed up jumble at that point, and pile them in ossuaries–bone rooms. The lack of identity fit with the religious theme that we are all dust, and the bone rooms could be visited for the contemplation of mortality.

      But graveyards are graveyards, not residential property –so you have no worries when planting your fruit tree.

      But also, to be clear, I am talking about composting, not natural burial. The guides on swine composting mention that some bone bits are in the resulting compost, so they recommend that when you spread the compost on cropland, you spread it away from residential areas. (!) So yeah, with human composting, there would also be a bone “problem” –but only if you want to consider it a problem. We could just bury the bone parts which remain respectfully. Or re-institute ossuaries. 😉

    • I can’t imagine a situation in today’s society in which human bones showing up in fields etc wouldn’t be a problem. How would you determine when to call law enforcement?

    • @ET: For sure! That would be bad. No one wants bones littering the landscape. What I meant is that once the deceased is fully composted, the compost could be sifted for bone fragments, and those could be buried/entombed some dignified fashion.

  4. The Lesters in Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell regularly bury their dead (6 or 7) babies in the field they work. They forget where the tiny unmarked graves are located, plowing the cotton fields just the same. You might say this was 1932, in the backward South, and just dissolute tenant farmers in order to dismiss any validity to their methods. Maybe Caldwell helped to hastened to end the burial of bodies in such a seemingly barbaric manner.

    I don’t know if it is called, but chickens and chicken parts are regularly buried in huge pits around here. I was in the Bankhead Forest with a friend. Chicken parts had been illegally dumped, not buried. My friend said the burial sometimes still leaves stink in the air for days and miles. The smell can turn a person wrong side out, much stronger than a skunk smelled close up.

  5. Glad to point you in the right direction! Since most of the “farms” that use these systems house thousands of pigs, yes, these systems are, in fact, the size of a house. Or a small apartment building.

    The other way of dealing with mortalities (as opposed to dealing with mortality itself, which is much more complicated) on these large “farms” is to bury the dead animals in pits. Composting is definitely the better option – better recycling of the resource, less chance of groundwater contamination, etc.

    It does seem that given the scale and density of human settlements, there is sufficient scale of human mortalities to support a composting operation. I guess the trick is the lack of ceremony. People want something that feels like a sacrament. Flames and smoke are good for that, as are satin-lined quarter-sawn oak caskets. Mulch piles, not so much.

    Oh, and “Noah’s Ark of Death”! Kind of sick, but I love the imagery of that phrase.

    • Thanks for the clarification about the big piles. The only images I’d seen were for small scale composting– say piles built in old animal stalls, which looked to hold one or two pigs.

      I agree about the necessity of ceremony. Also, in our individualistic culture group burial/compost piles is a no-go. But as I recall, in that Malcolm Beck article I ref’d in the first post on this burial stuff, he had the idea of having ceremonial compost bins (decorated, fancy) built for one, which could be dropped off in the composting site and left a year. So the bereaved would have a site to visit, and an object to decorate with commemorations. It could work. At least, it works in my twisted mind!

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