‘Human Composting’ Debate: A Deeper Dive into the Catholic Teaching on the Dignity of Human Remains
Human composting and human liquefying are now legal in some states, and although the Vatican hasn’t weighed in on these specific means, the Church has clear teachings on burying the dead.
What do you want done with your body after you die?
What should you want done?
In a handful of states, it’s now legal to put a body in a cylindrical vessel with microbes that eat the flesh in about a month, followed by grinding up the skeleton into powder, resulting in, within a few more weeks, about a cubic yard of “soil amendment,” which can be added to soil to make it richer and more fertile.
Some call it natural organic reduction, though the most common term for it is human composting.
A comparable (but distinct) process called alkaline hydrolysis — which uses water, chemicals, heat and pressure in an airtight chamber to reduce the human body in less than a day to bone fragments and a neutral liquid than can be “discharged with all other wastewater” — is legal in 15 states, according to the Cremation Association of North America, which since 2010 has included the process in its definition of “cremation.”
Supporters of organic reduction say it’s better than traditional burial because embalming chemicals pollute the environment, graves take up space and coffins and vaults require wood, metal and concrete. They also don’t like cremation, which requires emitting carbon dioxide and therefore, in the view of its critics, contributes to climate change, which they consider harmful.
Opponents say such methods don’t treat the human body with the dignity it deserves.
Human composting is (or will soon be) legal in five states.
The others are Colorado (enacted in May 2021, took effect in September 2021); Oregon (enacted June 2021, effective January 2022); Vermont (enacted in June 2022, took effect January 2023); and New York (signed into law Dec. 30, 2022, and taking effect in late March 2023).
A sixth state, California, in September 2022, enacted a bill allowing organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis, starting in January 2027.
In March 2021, a legislative committee hearing on a human-composting bill in Oregon drew written testimony from 86 people. One asked a question. One said he was neutral. The other 84 supported it.
“All my life I have grown a part of my food for myself and have composted the parts of the plants that remained and any kitchen scraps. My experience has proven to me that I am what I have eaten. It makes intuitive sense to me to have the nutrients that remain in my body when I die composted and used to grow and sustain new life,” wrote Barbara Ray, of Salem.
A then-80-year-old man said he shudders at the idea of traditional burial or cremation.
“I was born in January 1941, and as an octogenarian, one begins to think seriously about what comes next. While I am fairly confident that something happens to my spirit, I have rather dreaded my physical remains moldering alone in a cold coffin or burning to a crisp in a crematorium’s oven. The idea that what is left of me when my spirit departs will get promptly recycled back into a living ecosystem rather than slowly releasing toxic chemicals into the earth or adding more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere gives me great solace,” wrote Robert Peter Mogielnicki, of Portland.
What Does the Church Say?
The Vatican has not spoken publicly about either human composting or alkaline hydrolysis. In the absence of a definitive Church teaching, one question some are asking is whether these new “reduction” methods are analogous to cremation.
The Catholic Church prefers full body burial, but permits cremation.
An August 2016 document from the Vatican acknowledges that some choose cremation “because of sanitary, economic, or social reasons,” but requires burying remains in a cemetery — not scattered or stored — and that a funeral takes place. “Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals,” Canon 1176 of the Code of Canon Law states.
“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,” states the document Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo (“To Rise With Christ”), issued by what was then called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Francis.
Cremation is the most common method of disposing a body in the United States and is growing, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors, largely because of cost.
The Church’s reluctant approval of cremation is relatively recent. The Code of Canon Law in 1917 forbade it. In 1963, the Holy Office (today’s Dicastery for the Congregation of the Faith) relaxed the rule, allowing cremation as long as the person requesting it didn’t do so to deny faith in the resurrection of the body or other Church teachings, while maintaining the Church’s “adverse attitude toward cremation.”
As for human composting, few Church officials have spoken publicly about it.
In California and New York, the organizations that represent the diocesan bishops on public-policy matters in those states opposed the bills that legalized human composting.
When the Register recently contacted Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, he directed questions to two letters he wrote to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in early December.
Composting does not respect the human body as “a vessel of the soul,” Poust said in one letter.
“Composting is something we as a society associate with a sustainable method of eliminating organic trash that otherwise ends up in landfills. But human bodies are not household waste, and we do not believe that the process meets the standard of reverent treatment of our earthly remains,” Poust wrote. “A process that is perfectly appropriate for returning vegetable trimmings to the earth is not necessarily appropriate for human bodies.”
However, at least one U.S. bishop supports both ecological reduction and alkaline hydrolysis, touting them as “green options” that the Catholic Church ought to allow. Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque, Iowa, in October 2021 issued a statement acknowledging opposition from some other bishops who consider these methods “offensive, disrespectful, undignified.”
“But, is it more offensive than the process involved in embalming the body, dressing it up like a child’s doll, and applying makeup to it? Or is it more offensive than the Church practice of cutting a saint’s body into pieces for relics? And isn’t traditional burial disrespectful to God’s good, green earth?” Bishop Jackels wrote.
Through a spokesman, Archbishop Jackels told the Register this week that the Vatican asked him to take the statement down from the archdiocese’s website, which he did, out of obedience.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to me that the proposal I made about burial is not just outside-the-box thinking, but also outside-the-circle,” Bishop Jackels said in a written statement. “They were especially concerned that I was suggesting any place is acceptable for the burial of human remains, even scattering ashes; I would never suggest such a thing.”
But he reiterated the major points he made a year ago.
“At the same time, there was no objection to the questions I raised in my essay about traditional burial practices, nor did they offer any answers to those questions.”
What Do Theologians Say?
Human composting hasn’t drawn the attention of many Catholic theologians yet. The Register contacted three Catholic scholars who follow it.
Jason Eberl, a philosophy professor, said so-called “green burial” (no chemicals or coffin, full-body burial) and organic reduction of bodies address recent popes’ emphasis on the natural environment without inherently rejecting the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the body and hope in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
“As a general principle we need to keep both the late Pope Benedict’s and Pope Francis’ ecological concerns in mind. If we’re going to take that seriously as an ecological principle, how do we dispose of human remains?” said Eberl, director of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University in Missouri, who recently wrote a column on the subject, in a telephone interview. “That gives us a basis for not just allowing the process of either green burial or natural ecological reduction, but also encouraging it.”
Theologian John Grondelski drew a distinction between natural decomposition and purposeful destruction of the body, which leads him to oppose both cremation and human composting.
Concern for the environment is not enough to justify what he describes as violence toward the human body, whether through fire, chemicals or microbes, he told the Register.
“I would argue that there is a qualitative distinction between ‘care for our common home’ and the kind of ‘deep ecology’ that essentially reduces man to a deleterious carbon footprint. Lurking in the background, in my view, is an inchoate Manicheanism that still regards the body as somehow inferior to the ‘person.’ The ‘person’ goes to heaven; this polluting corpse is irrelevant,” said Grondelski, a former associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a Register contributor, by email. “Rome needs to make clear the critical line in how we look at ecology.”
Father Tad Pacholczyk, a Catholic bioethicist, said it’s vital that the human remains left from cremation, organic reduction or alkaline hydrolysis be buried — not scattered, dumped at sea or stored on the mantle. Because it’s easy to do all three, he said, these other methods of disposing human remains lend themselves to an anti-Catholic treatment of death more readily than full-body burial.
“There can be the potential to minimize or negate the concrete nature or incarnational reality of our loved one by dissolving their body in lye or burning it in fire,” said Father Pacholczyk, director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, by email.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “when it is buried whole in the ground, there is likely to be a stronger sense of honoring and remembering the fullness of the person who once lived as we do. These subtle differences in terms of according respect towards the deceased means that our preference should generally be for whole-body disposition of human remains, even though extenuating circumstances can allow for cremation or alkaline hydrolysis.”