My Grandfather had a tradition of keeping every fish that we caught. From the water and into a five gallon bucket we would take them home where me and my cousins would throw them directly into my Grandfather’s garden. Sometimes we would bury the fish, sometimes not. For his part, my Grandfather insisted that each fish was at least placed beside one to his gigantic sunflower plants or massive corn stalks. This daily summer routine was my first ever lesson in the benefits of composting. My grandfather is now long gone but his lessons are still as strong as my memory of him, and as my own time on the farm has passed, I have had to deal with the inevitable deaths that have occurred.
There have been two incidents in particular that have required serious consideration on the topic of composting. We had 60 chickens killed over a two day period by what we assume was a fisher cat. The bodies of the birds, which were completely intact, were a particular nuisance because they could attract more predators and because they stunk up the entire property. We have also had cattle die on the farm and in case you hadn’t realized, 1500 pounds of flesh in the July sun is a huge mess. The simplest way to deal with the bodies is to pull it up to the top of a hill, far away from any human habitation, and let nature break down the carcass. This is an option for someone with a lot of land but how can small local farms located in town deal with this problem? There are two options for them in this situation. The farmer could call in the rendering truck which will usually remove the carcass for no charge and process the animal into fertilizer or bio fuel, or the farmer can convert the animal into nutrient rich compost to be used again on the farm.
The process of efficient composting is the breakdown of organic matter into a balanced and nutrient rich soil. If done correctly, this process is natural, does not produce any offensive odors, and requires minimal maintenance. Composting can be accelerated and improved by aeration (turning of the pile) and the addition of beneficial animals and fungi. Further monitoring and disturbance will also increase the efficiency and overall speed of the process. The most common form of large animal composting involves digging a hole, placing the animal in the hole, filling in around the hole with your selected carbonaceous material, and simple wait until the tissue has been fully reduced into compost. Ideally the process should be monitored for temperature and moisture content and then turned as necessary. An entire cow can be converted into rich compost in about 6 months. It was while watching this process on another property that I began to ponder my own demise. I am from the land and it is there where I would like to return. Could I be composted on my farm? Is there a facility where I or my loved ones could be recycled for good use, and could my chubby nutrient rich body provide a suitable growing medium for other plants and creatures?
It turns out that the answers to some of these questions were difficult to find. Americans as a society are squeamish about death and it remains one of the few industries in this day and age that are thoroughly obfuscated. I knew that the mechanisms to compost my body on the farm were simple enough. My body size pales in the comparison of cattle and digging the hole, adding the carbon, and putting up a small marker seemed easy enough. The next question concerned the legality of this process. Now normally, as advised by my early farming mentors on things of this nature, I would just do what I want and see what happens. Common sense is a great guide to behavior and common sense was telling me that burying a body away from a water source and deep enough to not be disturbed by scavenging animals would work just fine. Besides, are the authorities going to come and dig me up if they find out? I proceeded to make a series of phone calls that when overheard by my roommates caused enough alarm that they asked me about it in that serious tone reserved for overdue bills or dead mice in the pantry. “Jason, who are you planning on burying on the farm?” I explained to them that I was researching on farm burials for an article and we went on with dinner but I’ve continued to get weird looks for the last couple of days.
After being shuffled around several agencies and two Nancy’s, I was finally put in touch with a doctor from the USDA who is their livestock composting expert. Together we reviewed the official stance of New York State concerning on farm burials. It was simple, keep the body away from water and contact your local government offices. Naturally, as a next step, I went ahead and contacted the local officials. The experts there explained that indeed it was legal to bury a person on your property as long as it was away from a water source. The clerk went onto explain explained that they receive a few requests every year regarding this matter and that this was a very common practice when she growing up.
Now that I knew it was possible to bury me or grandpa on the farm, I was interested in how this could be extended to a more urban environment. Surely not everyone owns land suitable for burying loved ones and there are many more people living in cities as opposed to rural areas that need to be buried. It turns out that there are two companies activity seeking to build composters to deal with the remains of those living in urban environments. The first is the Urban Death Project, founded by Katrina Spade, and architect based in Seattle Washington. As indicated on their website, the “Urban Death Project utilized the process of composting to safety and gently turn our deceased into soil-building material, creating a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative to existing options for disposal of the dead. This system focuses on urban settings where it is not practical to use space for the burial of bodies and where the intense concentration of pathogens is unsuitable. The process itself relies on the simple composition ratios of nitrogen and carbon. Bodies are laid to rest in a bed of wood chips or other carbacious material at the top of the structure. Over the next couple of months the bodies are naturally converted to hummus with the intention of nourishing the city parks and or gardens of the living.”
Basically the company proposes to place your body in a special biodegradable bag equipped with a secure breather to ensure unwanted smells remain inside while air and microbes are able to get inside. You will then be laid on a bed of carbon, covered and begin to compost inside of the building. The actual composter itself is well designed and would not look out of place in any modern city landscape. As material is removed from the bottom of the composter, your body travels down through the layers of dirt and carbon decomposing as it goes.
The other company exploring this idea is Capsula Mundi. This Italian company was “created to promote the realization of green cemeteries in our country. Capsula Mundi is a container with an old perfect shape, just like an egg, made with modern material -starch plastic- in which the dead body is put in a fetal position. Capsula Mundi is planted like a seed in the soil, and a tree is planted on top of it. The tree is chosen when the person is alive, relatives and friends look after it when death occurs. A cemetery will no longer be full of tombstones and will become a sacred forest.” This is a similar concept to the composting of bodies but instead of carbonaceous material the body is wrapped in a plastic starch based cocoon. This concept sounds nice but I wonder if the trees and the environment would benefit from the addition of more carbon to the ratio. The ideal ratio of carbonaceous material (wood chips) and nitrogen (the body) is roughly 30 to 1. If you get too far from this ratio, the efficiency of composting is decreased and the possibility of off putting sights and smells in increased. In my opinion, the Capsula Mundi project would benefit from placing the starch based container in a bed of carbon to increase the efficiency of the composting. The sacred forest concept is beautiful and has the potential to provide a much more productive and less labor intensive space than our current cemetery system.
I can already hear the protests. But what about cremation and green burials, my uncle was cremated and we have him over our television right there next to the Elvis bust. It is true that this cremation is less invasive to the environment than modern burials though it is not without it’s flaws. It takes fuel and resources to incinerate an organism made mostly of water, the emissions can harbor dangerous levels of metals because of dental fillings and other medical accoutrements, and the heat generated is not harvested for any productive purpose. On the other hand, green burials utilize non-toxic and biodegradable materials as a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact. This sounds like a truly traditional burial and an excellent alternative to the current practice of sealing a chemical laden body in a metal casket. I do believe that the green burial movement is a step in the right direction but like the current buzz word “natural” adorning all types of products in the supermarket, it is not defined by a standard set of practices leaving it open to all sorts of interpretations and deceptions.
Each of these alternative burial methods has its merit and is a vast improvement over the current practices in the United States. The population around the world continues to rise and our available land continues to shrink. But what if we could make more land. What if we could transfer our bodies into nutrient rich soil to nourish our plants and our future offspring? The time to make this a reality is now. We can no longer turn a blind eye towards our legacy and that includes what we leave behind in physical remains. Composting our bodies is a way to give back to the earth that provided for us. I’m sure my grandfather would have grown into a very large sunflower.