“Decomposition” is a word usually associated with death: “death and decomposition” go hand in hand. I can readily imagine an NCIS episode in which a serious Gibbs is staring at medical examiner “Ducky” Mallard while the latter opines, “I can’t establish the time of death with certainty until I get him back to autopsy, but, based on the decomposition, I’d say his demise occurred 48-72 hours ago.”
“Decomposition” is part of our death vocabulary. But have you ever heard of “recomposition?”
You might if you lived in Washington state.
Washington state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, prefiled a bill (S.5001) in the upcoming Legislature to allow “recomposition” as a method of disposing of human remains.
So what is “recomposition?” Pedersen defines it as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” Think of it as human composting — in which our bodies after death are given no more respect than humus — that is, decaying matter on a forest floor.
“Recomposing” a body, as explained by news reports, means putting a corpse into a shroud filled with organic material (e.g., alfalfa, straw or wood chips) into which air is pumped to “accelerate microbial activity” and break down the remains (in about a month) into a cubic yard of “compost” to use in your backyard. Just to make sure that you don’t infect the flower bed, the temperature generated by the microbes must reach 131°F (55°C) for 72 consecutive hours to kill off pathogens.
Advocates of “recomposition,” include Katrina Spade, a Seattle designer and self-described “eco-death revolutionary” who founded “Recompose,” a “public benefit corporation” that could make $5,500-per-human mulching if Pedersen’s bill passes. Spade calls the process an “environmental and social-justice issue” that expands “choice” about death and affords a “meaningful” alternative to burial or cremation.
Spade said she got the idea from farm friends, who employ a similar process with dead livestock. (Monica Miller has documented similar processes to destroy post-abortion fetal remains, which is one of the reasons Indiana is seeking Supreme Court review of its law requiring burial or cremation of them.)
Pedersen’s bill would also legalize alkaline hydrolysis, another way of disposing of human remains now allowed in about a third of the states. Alkaline hydrolysis involves dissolving a body in a tank of water and potassium hydroxide, until basically only fluid (and perhaps some bone) is left.
The “Order of the Good Death” is also working on other ideas to render you into human peat moss. The “mushroom burial suit” is essentially a shroud lined with the fungus that also consumes the body. “Promession” (which is still on the drawing board) seeks to freeze a body in liquid nitrogen so that the freeze-dried corpse can be “vibrated” into powder, put in an organic shaft and “buried,” not unlike a fertilizer spike. “Capsula mundi” is burial of a body in a biodegradable pod-cum-“casket” for use in places where “uncasketed” interment is “difficult.”
NBC reported that Pedersen felt his earlier bill legalizing alkaline hydrolysis died (no pun intended) because of Church opposition (respect for a person’s remains per Church teaching; supposedly the Church was concerned about human effluent draining into public sewer systems); but other legislators say that the Washington Legislature had other priorities. Whatever the reason, it’s important to keep in mind that the “unchurched” Pacific Northwest is known as one of the most socially liberal parts of the United States.
So what’s a Catholic to say?
Body of Truth
The most recent teaching of the universal Church, the 2016 instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo is a bit behind the curve on the “Death Positive” movement, focusing primarily on cremation.
The document restates the Catholic “preference” for earth burial (which it “insistently recommends”) over cremation, while recognizing that the choice of the latter for “sanitary, economic or social” reasons not motivated by a denial of Christian faith in the resurrection of the body can be tolerated. The 1963 rescission of the prohibition on cremation is alluded to in the context of its origins, i.e., when cremation was primarily resorted to as a kind of “I dare God to put it back together” response of atheists to Christian belief in the General Resurrection.
Ad Resurgendum mentions that, in the ensuing years, “the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread” (1). That is a bit of an understatement: In the United States, cremation is now rivalling burial as the ordinary method of disposing of human bodies; and data suggests Catholics are not laggard in taking up the trend.
While the Vatican document remains fixed on cremation, it does offer us some indications that the Church would oppose human composting.
The most important indication is the document’s recognition that the Church “cannot … 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” (3).
The root of the Church’s objection is, therefore, anthropological. Man is made in God’s image and likeness. Part of the natural world, he is nevertheless given dominion over that world and so remains superior to it. The human person is a unified compositum of body and soul, which, together, make up the human person. Because his body is the body of a person — a human person redeemed by Christ, who “became flesh and lived among us” — that body is sacred, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a sacramental.
In its tolerance of cremation, Ad Resurgendum also sets certain limits. The cremains are to be kept together: They should not be divided, like heirlooms, among relatives nor turned into keepsakes (there is a funeral industry subset that will turn your dearly departed into a pendant) because cremains were once a person, not a thing.
On the same principle, cremains should be buried in toto: The deceased should have a final resting place other than one’s fireplace mantle, and the cremains (no matter how many Hollywood movies one watches) should not be “scattered.”
All the “death positive” methods proposed by Pederson, Spade, et al, seem to deny the uniqueness of the human person and especially the human body. They treat the remains as so much biological mass that poses a problematic “carbon footprint” that can be “eco-unfriendly,” and so these methods are designed to lessen the former.
Implicit in them, however, also appears to be the notion that the human person (or at least the human body, which indicates a dualist anthropology) is fundamentally not different from other organic matter. Indeed, there is a kind of assumption that man “owes” something to nature by returning as a nutrient.
This theologian has previously argued that the Church should tighten its discipline on cremation, because its professed “preference” for earth burial means little in practice. He would argue that the Church should explicitly prohibit Catholics from resorting to organically accelerated decomposition and especially subsequent “post-reduction” (to borrow Pedersen’s phrase) “scattering” of the remains as inherently representing a pantheistic understanding of human life incompatible with the Christian vision of man, death and resurrection.
Who would have thought that we now even need a “theology of the body” for the dead?
John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.
He thanks the “Connecticut Catholic Corner” for bringing “recomposition” to his attention.