Natural Reduction aka “Human Composting”

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Recently, the Washington state legislature approved a bill which in a year will allow the construction of facilities that offer what some people are referring to as “human composting.” But for now, the Herland Forest offers a similar option. Which is good because death rarely comes at a convenient time.

The goal of the proposed legislation is to offer alternatives to cremation and traditional burial.The official name for the “new” process is “natural organic reduction” which is pretty much what Herland Forest is already doing.

The new law defines natural organic reduction as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains into soil.” The practice they’re contemplating involves interring a person’s remains at the top of a concrete silo filled with wood chips. As the combination of wood chips and human remains decompose and gravity moves the decomposing remains and wood chips down the silo, more wood chips and human remains would be added to the top of the silo. Composted soil would then be removed at the bottom of the silo and transported to some other location for use as a soil amendment.

To enable this to happen, the new law authorizes the construction of a “natural organic reduction facility” which is defined as a “structure, room, or other space in a building or real property where natural organic reduction of a human body occurs.” Katrina Spade, the leading proponent of urban reduction,  describes it this way; “Inside a vertical core, bodies and wood chips undergo accelerated natural decomposition, or composting, and are transformed into soil.” Then the combination of composted remains and wood chips would be transported somewhere else for final disposal.

All of that’s possible, but we’d note that it’s easier to transport a body to the forest, than it is to package up and transport the half-ton of soil that urban natural organic reduction creates.

In our case, we don’t use a commercial structure to contain the human remains as they are transformed into enriched soil; instead, we use the living forest’s mycological network.In our case, we don’t use a commercial structure to contain the human remains as they are transformed into enriched soil; instead, we use the mycological network that is the foundation of a healthy forest.

Instead of a concrete silo, we “contain” the remains in the earth. That allows the subterranean forest systems to reclaim the elements contained with the body–things like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and calcium–thereby providing the essential ingredients that the trees need in order to thrive.

Fungi aren’t plants; they don’t have chlorophyll and can’t produce the sugar their cells need in order to live. When the fungi find one of these essential atoms, they bring it to the tree. In exchange, the trees provide the fungi with the sugar it needs. The result is that a living forest involves the evolution of an entire “underground” economy, an exchange that plays an essential role in maintaining the forest’s ecological health.

The Process: The remains are laid on a bed of wood chips.

Then, barrels of wood chips are added to completely encase the remains.

Finally, the grave is capped with the dirt that was dug from the grave.

One argument for the creation of urban reduction facilities is that it’s better than tying up more urban real estate in the form of cemeteries. That makes sense, but Herland’s vision is that it’s better to allow the reduction process to occur naturally in the forest, rather than commercially in the city.

Another reason we believe that Herland’s version of “natural organic reduction” is better is the enduring emotional benefit of having a specific place where the remains of a loved one can be visited; something that can function as a “locus of memory”. When the reduction occurs in a large concrete silo, one person’s remains become mixed with the remains of many other people. The compost coming out the bottom will have the remains of many people, but no one will know who’s who. When the reduction happens in a registered location in the forest, the family will know right where their loved one’s remains are interred. They can visit, camp out, and continue the connection.

We believe that interment in the forest helps protect the forest from being clear cut and “developed” into more urban sprawl. Those who choose forest burial can sing along with George Fox, saying, “Build those backyards somewhere else, because here I am. There’s no trespassing on this land.”

There’s also the matter of cost. The leading proponent of human composting projects a cost of $5,500 per interment. Assuming that they’re able to meet that projection, and obtain the necessary building permits, that’s still thousands of dollars more than the cost of being interred in the Herland Forest.

And my last point would be that natural organic reduction in a concrete silo or some commercial container won’t be legally available until the law takes effect in May of 2020. Moreover, as the first commercial urban facilities have to go through the multi-layer process of zoning and construction, it’s likely that the first urban reduction won’t happen for some time. Fortunately, Herland Forest is receiving remains now.