Why I chose human composting over cremation or burial

As the child of an episcopal priest, I grew up hearing the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” at more Ash Wednesday services and funerals than I care to count. I was too busy either squirming out of boredom or trying to wipe ashes from my forehead to consider the implications of that phrase.

Before my hippie parents died of their addiction in the late 1970s, they explained to me how they intended to put the spiritual concept of “ashes to ashes” into practice by choosing cremation. My teenage mind imagined all sorts of bizarre scenarios for what I could do with her ashes, my gallows humor was older Weekend at Bernie’s by well over a decade.

Her decision to have cremation turned out to be one of her few healthy lifestyle choices. They made this decision because they believed the practice suited their Earth ethics more than a commercial traditional burial. According to the Green Burial Council, annual traditional burials in the United States use approximately:

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, including 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene
  • 20 million board feet of hardwood, including rainforest wood
  • 1.6 million tons of concrete
  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
  • 64,500 tons of steel
  • Caskets and vaults that leach iron, copper, lead, zinc and cobalt

While modern traditional cremation may be less toxic, experts say the energy and emissions are equivalent to two tanks of gas in an average car. Simply put, this is too much harmful residue for my soul. This is one road trip I’d rather avoid — and I decided to go a step further than my parents did by giving my body back to earth in a more natural way.

The question was how exactly I could do that. As I turned the big 4-0, I was drawn to the concept of a green burial to leave no trace when I leave. But eco-friendly funerals were a service only offered in select locations, and all funeral expenses cost more than I could afford to put aside. So I postponed any decisions about what would happen to my body after I died. After all, I was young and had previously avoided indulging in those vices that were destroying much of my extended family.

Then COVID hit, along with wildfires that ravaged Portland, Oregon, where I live — not to mention the arrival of my 60th birthday. The surge in mailings from AARP and others marketing to the “silverhairs” (probably sounds more upmarket than old farts) told me I had to make some important life decisions, including what would happen to my body after I died.

So I began researching natural burial options and soon found that I am among most Americans intrigued by this option. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) Consumer Awareness and Preferences Report 2022, 60.5 percent of respondents would be interested in exploring “green” funeral options because of potential environmental benefits, cost savings or other reasons, up from 55.7 percent in 2021.

While the association supports green funerals, as explained by NFDA spokesman and funeral director Stephen Kemp, state and federal laws limit the options they can offer families. For example, he finds the Hindu method of natural burial – in which families do the cremation themselves – a wonderful process. “I wish we could do it like we did in India, but some of the EPA rules forbid it here in the United States,” he said.

According to Kemp, the most popular request he receives from families looking for a greener burial is for a natural burial in a green cemetery. I have already ruled out this option as my estranged family has no common property for me to rest on permanently. I figured no one would bother to visit me, let alone make sure my grave wasn’t overgrown with weeds, pests, and overly horny goth kids.

As I looked at the other more eco-friendly alternatives, the water lover in me was drawn to alkaline hydrolysis. Practitioners say this water-based cremation process results in over 90 percent energy savings compared to flame-based cremation. But I wondered what would happen to my remains then. Did I want them turned into rocks, placed in a water-soluble urn like a papier-mâché turtle to be sent out to sea, or used to create an artificial reef formation? These options looked nice on paper, but were either too impractical or way out of my price range.

As an avid hiker, fly fisherman, cyclist, and gardener, I felt a strong urge to go back into the earth as living soil. As such, I was drawn to human composting, a method of accelerated human decomposition scientifically known as Natural Organic Reduction (NOR). After this process is complete, my remains could be placed in a plantable urn or turned into soil that could be returned directly to the earth.

When I mentioned the process of human composting to a few friends, the responses I received ranged from morbid curiosity to outright disgust, with a few jokes about how my soil would provide the perfect growing conditions for cannabis plants. Undaunted, I continued my research and learned that NOR had been legalized in Oregon, Washington State and Colorado and laws were being considered in New York and California.

The finished compost product.

Herlaender forest

After weeding out a few for-profit human composting centers that seemed too commercialized and cold for my spiritual sensibilities, I discovered Herland Forest, a non-profit natural cemetery on the eastern edge of the Cascade Wilderness. For starters, her $3,000 price tag was at least half of what the other outfits were asking for.

In my phone conversation with Senior Steward Walt Patrick, I found her philosophy on nature in tune with my soul. He describes the difference between traditional burial practices and their practice: “Commercial euthanasia does what it can to prevent the deceased from returning to the natural world and re-entering the cycle of life. In contrast, we do what we can to help the deceased become a dynamic part of the life cycle. NOR offers a path to go from the path you have walked in life to becoming a part of the larger cycle of life.”

Patrick described the process of turning a body into earth:

An insulated casket configured as a cradle is prepared with a layer of 80 gallons of damp wood shavings and the body is then placed in the cradle on top of the wood shavings and covered with another layer of wood shavings. The cradle lid is put on and screwed on, and every few days the cradle is rolled back and forth.


An insulated coffin filled with wood chips.

Herlaender forest

The temperature inside the cradle is monitored. As the decomposition gets going, the internal temperature rises to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. and then come down slowly. When the internal temperature falls below 80 degrees, the initial process is complete. The cradle is then opened and the composted remains are removed, processed and stored in 55 gallon drums.

The resulting soil is either collected for distribution on private property or added to Herland’s living sanctuary of native pine, fir and oak, as well as non-native varieties such as chestnut, walnut, ginkgo, cherry, apple and hazelnut. So I have the option of either growing a buddies bud with my leftovers so they can smoke my spirits, or have walkers walk all over me now that I’m part of the PNW landscape.

This company is an outgrowth of the Windward Education and Research Center, which has used forest products to convert the remains of large livestock into nutrient-rich compost for decades. After Washington State legalized NOR, they continued to compost the remains of the animals they work with in their sustainability research. But as Patrick noted, “The change in law has just allowed us to apply the skills we’ve developed over two decades to disposing of human remains.”


Funeral director Elizabeth Fournier of Cornerstone Funeral is overseeing the preparations.

Herlaender forest

After the decomposition process is complete, the compost becomes family property and they can do whatever they want with it. The photos on their website of their permaculture forest told me that I would be at home in their living sanctuary – helping to nourish the native trees.

Having made the decision to participate in the Herland Forest program, I am filled with a sense of peace knowing that I will be leaving a living and lasting legacy. More importantly, as I emerge from an extended period of isolation as a result of this global pandemic, I am filled with an intense burning desire to connect with nature. Right now I am ready but not excited for the time when I will become a part of the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-i-chose-human-composting-over-cremation-or-burial?source=articles&via=rss Why I chose human composting over cremation or burial


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: hung@interreviewed.com.

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