Human Composting Is Repulsive

Without any fanfare, in the closing days of 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul quietly signed into law permission for “natural organic reduction,” better known as “human composting.” New York now joins five of the nation’s most progressive states in legalizing the practice. Human composting consists of heating and regularly rotating a human corpse laid inside a container loaded with organic materials. After six to eight weeks, the entire body morphs into soil. The bones are then placed in an incinerator (“cremulator” is the euphemism), burned into more soil, and added to what was once the rest of the body to be tossed into a garden, forest, or horticultural paradise.

The biblical prophecy is now recast: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you hastily shall be turned. And turned.”

Arguments for human composting, as recently articulated by the New York Times, are utilitarian, emotional, and philosophical. It costs less than traditional burial, and, though more expensive than cremation, composting’s version of bone-burning does far less damage to the environment. It satisfies an emotional connection to the earth that includes a desire both to give back to it and to commune with deceased loved ones now enmeshed in it. And it represents a new form of death ritual that has meaning for some, so, in the spirit of moral relativism, we ought to respect each person’s choice.

Advocacy for human composting stems from a philosophical dualism that posits a radical separation between soul and body. In this view, the body is accidental, not essential, to human existence. This is the same philosophy underlying today’s transgender phenomenon. Hence, the body can be treated as a mere instrument: Its natural processes can be thwarted, and its healthy members mutilated to conform it to a distorted idea, or it can be thrown away after death since its connection to the person had no real value in the first place.

Human composting erodes human dignity. I have a compost heap in my backyard. It’s where my family and I throw our organic trash: banana peels, tea bags, coffee grinds, eggshells, inedible fruit and vegetable waste, rotted pumpkins after Halloween.

The human body is not a piece of trash. It is the essential mode of our existence – we are embodied souls. The soul has no life, self-understanding, or experiences apart from the body. A person is more than his body, but cannot live or be conceived of without his body.

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Even outside of Christian circles, civilized people believe each person has an inherent dignity that no one may violate. Because of the essential union of soul and body, respecting the dignity of the person necessarily requires respect for the human body. We cannot, for example, do violence to a person physically and claim that we are somehow respecting his soul at the same time. So, we rightly oppose racism and sexism, for the attacks these prejudices wage on account of a body’s appearance attack the person. In exploiting the body, these prejudices dehumanize.

By withering the human body into formless dirt, human composting is another form of dehumanization. If bodies are worthy of respect in life, they are also worthy of it in death. This is why for millennia so many cultures of varying religious faiths have practiced burying their dead: doing so is an act of homage to the person who was once someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, parent, friend, neighbor – and should still be honored as such even in death.

Despite appearances, composting a human body is not accelerating a natural process. Yes, bodies decay over time; but, as if nature itself were teaching a lesson on human dignity, bones do not decay. They remain together, fixed in the ground as the markers of a singular, intact being, a reminder of the person who once lived. We consider cemeteries hallowed grounds because they house something special. We allow the dead to rest in peace as a testament to the fact that these were persons who deserved respect when living, and still deserve respect in death.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, the argument for preserving the body in death is still more profound. With Christmas we celebrate God becoming man, an event that imbued human flesh with divine nobility. The human body is so blessed by God and so essential to human existence that death brings only a temporary separation of soul and body. At the end of time, God will raise our decayed bodies from the earth and transform them into spiritual bodies – just like Christ’s own – with which our souls will reunite. We state this belief each Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

When Pope Francis decried our contemporary “throwaway culture” that disregards the poor and the marginalized, he implored us to remember: “No one is disposable!” To this figurative use of the term we must sadly add the literal meaning: no human being, in life or in death, should ever be disposed as trash to rot in a compost heap.

No appeals to consent or love of the earth can justify treating the human body as dirt or turning it into dirt to fluff up our gardens. Building up the earth cannot come at the expense of human dignity, which erodes with the corpse if we tolerate human composting as just another “lifestyle choice.”

 

*Image: Last Judgement (Weltgericht) by Stefan Lochner, c. 1435 [Wallraf–Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany]. This is the center panel of a triptych probably commissioned for the council chamber of Cologne’s City Hall.

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Respect for the Body

Michael Pakaluk’s To Rise with Christ

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

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