Kafer: Composting human bodies may draw the ire of some, but I’m all for returning to the substrate of life

Whatever the hens don’t eat gets composted — onion peels, coffee grounds, orange rinds, chiminea ashes, avocado pits, and leaves. Over time, the pile transforms into a rich, dark brown soil that I add to my garden beds. I love soil so much I usually garden without gloves to the detriment of my brittle nails because I like the feel of it. Soil nurtures plants, filters water, and sequesters carbon. It is the substrate of life.

So when I learned about Colorado Senate Bill 6, the Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil act, I thought it was a good idea. (Please be advised this column focuses on the handling human remains after death). The bill “authorizes human remains to be converted to soil using a container that accelerates the process of biological decomposition, also known as ‘natural reduction.’ ” The reduction process enables the breakdown of the body into its basic, molecular elements. It is similar to a green burial whereby a person is buried in a biodegradable coffin without embalming to fascinate a natural return to the earth. The difference is that the reduction process is quite a bit faster taking about 30 days.

The practice is legal in Oregon and other states are considering authorizing legislation. In Oregon, transformed remains can be donated to a land trust, Bells Mountain, to support ecological restoration.

The bill before the Colorado legislature forbids the selling of soil made from human remains, the commingling of the soil of more than one person without consent, and the use of soil for the growing of food for human consumption.

The reduction process is one of the most environmentally friendly means of burial. It uses about one-eighth of the energy required for traditional burial or cremation. By comparison, the cremation process burns fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide. Burial requires the manufacturing of grave liners and caskets and burial plots take up considerable land. Only an alkaline hydrolysis or water cremation is comparable since it also uses about an eighth of the energy of traditional cremation.

Understandably, some people may recoil from the idea of turning human remains into soil. The Colorado Catholic Conference opposes the legislation because “The Catholic Church teaches that human life and the human body are sacred, and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral society. The conversion of human remains to soil does not promote human dignity.”

In my opinion, the Catholic Church has been the most courageous of the Christian denominations in protecting the dignity and preciousness of all human lives from conception to natural death. The church seeks to protect the dignity of the human body after death and to prevent the trivialization of death and burial. This is commendable.

Historically the church did not allow cremation for similar reasons. In 1963, the Vatican determined that while burial should be the norm, cremation was allowable.  The Vatican released new guidelines in 2016 indicating that cremated remains should be kept in a sacred place like a church cemetery and should not be scattered or “preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”  Although cremation does not “prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life” it can provide an occasion for disrespect if the remains are handled in a careless way.

I would argue that a forest or a garden can be a sacred space because the whole world is God’s handiwork and nurturing plants until the body is resurrected anew can be ennobling. Thus, while I respect the opposition of my co-religionists, I believe the Colorado legislature should give people who desire a greener option for burial the opportunity by passing Senate Bill 6.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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