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Q and A with Fr John Flader: Composting human remains

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A statue of Mary is seen amid the headstones in cemetery. We think of the dead as no longer alive, but for Christians they are more alive than ever before. If they are in Purgatory, they need our prayers and can pray for us. In the meatime, we can – and should pray for the intentions of all the angels and saints of heaven. As Christians we belong to the only institution in the world that exists simultaneously in time and out of it and we are all connected in one great family by prayer and grace in Jesus. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

Dear Father, I recently read that in the US they are converting human remains into compost. I was astonished and want to ask whether this is permissible on moral grounds.

I too was astonished. If we thought the world was going crazy, this is just one more piece of evidence to justify that thought. It is a denial of the great respect with which we, at least we Christians, have always treated the body, both in life and in death.

But first, what are the facts? The latest piece of news was that on 18 September 2022 California’s Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation authorising the “composting” of human remains for soil.

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The Cemetery and Funeral Act will implement regulatory methods for that state to approve so-called “reduction facilities,” in which human bodies are broken down in a process similar to a household composting system. The measure will take effect in January 2027.

California has thus become the fifth US state to legalise the practice, joining Oregon, Washington State, Colorado and Vermont.

“Cristina Garcia, the California politician who authored the bill, said the legislation was meant to help address ‘climate change and sea-level rise’ by giving California residents ‘an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere.'”

Unlike Colorado’s legislation, the California law does not forbid the sale of composted human remains or the use of the “soil” for growing fruit and vegetables for human consumption.

Behind the law was – you guessed it – concern for the environment. Cristina Garcia, the California politician who authored the bill, said the legislation was meant to help address “climate change and sea-level rise” by giving California residents “an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere.”

She said that since trees are important carbon breaks for the environment, she looks forward to “continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree.”

The practice of composting the remains of human beings in order to enrich the soil is known by the euphemism Natural Organic Reduction (NOR). In 2020, NOR company and activist organisation Recompose became the first organisation in the US to open a human composting funeral home.

Is this practice of converting human remains into compost admissible from a moral point of view? Certainly not.
Is this practice of converting human remains into compost admissible from a moral point of view? Certainly not.

The facility in Kent, Washington, has 10 hexagonal cylinders in which deceased human bodies are stored and their decomposition process is hastened.

According to Recompose, the so-called “reduction” process involves placing the body in a reusable vessel, covering it with wood chips and aerating it, thus creating an environment for microbes and essential bacteria.

A human body will be “fully transformed into soil” after about 30 days, the organisation says.

“Soil” derived from the bodies can then be used “to enrich garden beds, planted with a tree, divided across multiple locations, or donated to conservation efforts.”

Recompose’s website leaves no secrets about the ideology behind the NOR movement, stating that employees must advocate for climate healing, soil health, and environmental justice, be anti-racist as well as engage with the work of queer feminist practices of inclusion and equity.

“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body …”

Is this practice admissible from a moral point of view? Certainly not. Our body is that of a human person, composed of body and soul, and it is destined to be reunited with the soul on the Last Day.

It is not the body of an animal or a plant, which decomposes, never to rise again, and it is therefore to be treated with the utmost respect, even in death. On 15 August 2016 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an Instruction on burial and cremation entitled Ad resurgendum cum Christo.

It says with respect to burial: “By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body” (AR 3).

Natural Organic Reduction is precisely a practice of fusing the body with Mother Nature. It is completely unacceptable.

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