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Posted on April 24, 2015 at 7:04 AM

I am a lousy gardener. Just this year I am considering a small attempt at growing a few vegetables organically in my backyard. Maybe it was the long winter, maybe it is a drive to live more sustainably, maybe it is the challenge of overcoming decades of plant growing failures. After carefully selecting a few packets of easy to grow seeds and starting a few slow-growers inside, I have turned my attention to creating the best growing environment for these fragile plants. Part of this effort includes learning how to create compost from kitchen and yard waste materials. While I search for a suitable compost bin to take position behind the garage, I am diligently collecting fruit cores, egg shells, coffee grounds, and discarded greens in airtight containers in my fridge. Researching my options, I stumbled across an article that had me doing a double take, “A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost” in the New York Times online. I gasped in horror. Could this possibly be an ethical option for burial? Could this be legal? Was this environmentally safe? Was this a joke?

No joke at all, according to the article which details the process offered to persons and families interested pushing for this new expansion of the natural burial movement. Supporting arguments include drawing parallels between deceased human corpses and road kill corpses which are processed for composting (link from original article: YouTube). Additionally, there is supporting argument that unless a body is cremated, it will decompose anyway and simply take longer if embalmed so this is a more natural way of repurposing the remains for supporting new life through plants. According to the website information on the Urban Death Project website compost from human remains would be used for trees, and flower gardens, not food crops. It proposes an alternative that may alleviate the crowding problems and limited space for burial in traditional cemeteries, and is overall less costly. 

As for my concerns, this is not legal in all states at this time according to the original article. Issues related to burial rituals are addressed as well, stating that such rituals have historically evolved over time and this may simply be another shift in how we manage the disposal of human remains, and what is repugnant at first becomes acceptable with time and experience. The proposed composting project includes ceremonial lying of the deceased body by loved ones in the facility three story facility (called a library) for processing, assuring it is respectful and loving while allowing for a deeper connection with the deceased through the renewing cycle of nature. 

It will be interesting to see if and how this proposal moves forward, and more importantly what underlying values end up supporting or squelching this initiative. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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