How Our Bodies Impact the Earth After Death
At some point in our life, we ask ourselves what we want to do with our bodies after we die. Typically, we are left to decide between burial and cremation. We are persuaded to choose one over the other — possibly relating to how we don’t like the material waste of burial or the carbon emissions of cremations. What if there were a more sustainable option? Would you consider it?
Recompose is a “natural organic reduction” process that gently transforms a human body into soil in about thirty days (Recompose). The purpose of Recompose is to reduce the use of land and give back to the Earth. Though it is a fairly new practice, it is a more sustainable method compared to cremation and various forms of burial.
Thinking about why we choose a certain death care practice relates to John Muckelbauer’s notion that “everything is rhetorical.” We have the option of green burial, which limits material consumption and ground pollution. Examples of green burial include wrapping the body in a shroud or placing the body in an unadorned coffin. It’s viewed to be more sustainable for using natural, biodegradable materials. It minimizes the amount of waste and material being buried. Although, it still contributes to taking up more space that could have remained untouched. Since space is becoming increasingly more limited for burial, we turn to cremation. We think it’s the better option to minimize our impact on Earth. However, the amount of carbon emissions affects climate change.
As individuals, we have the ability to preserve ourselves through memorials, burials, and urns. Our consumption of space after death plays into how we don’t want to be forgotten. Burying someone and marking their grave creates a space where the living can return to visit. If someone chooses cremation over burial, their ashes can be placed in a cemetery or in an urn. Keeping the ashes of someone departed acts as a reminder of that person.
When Santos and Browning talk about invention, they focus on the generation of ideas from nothing. A crematory is a space meant to turn a body into ashes. It’s not active until a body is placed into the furnace and turns into ashes. The space (furnace) goes back to its inactive state (of doing nothing). This idea of space and activity also relates to cemeteries being inactive until we are there to visit our loved ones. This is not saying that the cemetery or the urn is meaningless, but rather becomes a space where we have the opportunity to visit.
In 2016, Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, described in a TedTalk how she came to think about a sustainable form of death care. Spade credits that she got her ideas for recomposition from farmers that would practice livestock mortality composting. The cows would be wrapped in shrouds and covered with wood chips. In several months, the cow would decompose and turn into soil. Spades methods are similar to how Recompose functions now. Wood chips are placed over the body and inserted into a vessel. The higher levels of oxygen above ground allow the body to decompose at a faster rate compared to being buried. There is still a sense of privacy and enclosure that gives the body a resting place.
Spade credits farmers for how she developed her methods of human decomposition, the Recompose website also makes a land acknowledgment to the Duwamish People and crediting Indigenous practices and ideas. Zoe Todd talks about the importance of recognizing and crediting Indigenous thought. The creators of Recompose recognize their use of land and space, and how important it is to commit to protecting and healing the environment.
While we all have the free will to choose how we want to be commemorated, scholar Laurie Gries mentions “radical openness” is valuable in broadening our understanding of new ideas and inventions. Understanding the invention of Recompose extends how we think about sustainability. When we take into account how we are being persuaded to choose one death care practice over another, we recognize that there are multiple factors to our decision, including the environment. Recompose pushes against the use of materials further contributing to pollution and climate change, and provides the option where we can nourish the Earth after our death.
“Ecological Death Care.” Recompose, 11 Feb. 2021, recompose.life/.
Kiley, Brendan. “Recompose, the First Human-Composting Funeral Home in the U.S., Is Now Open for Business.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 22 Jan. 2021, www.seattletimes.com/life/recompose-the-first-human-compositing-funeral-home-in-the-u-s-is-now-open-for-business/.
Muckelbauer, John. “Implicit Paradigms of Rhetoric: Aristotelian, Cultural, and Heliotropic.” Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things, 2016, pp. 30–41.
Santos, Marc C, and Ella R Browning. “Maira Kalman and/as Choric Invention.” Enculturation, 8 Dec. 2018, www.enculturation.net/kalman-choric-invention.
Todd, Zoe. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism (Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî).” Uma (in)Certa Antropologia, 24 Oct. 2014, umaincertaantropologia.org/2014/10/26/an-indigenous-feminists-take-on-the-ontological-turn-ontology-is-just-another-word-for-colonialism-urbane-adventurer-amiskwaci/.
Lynda Walsh, Nathaniel A. Rivers, Jenny Rice, Laurie E. Gries, Jennifer L. Bay, Thomas Rickert & Carolyn R. Miller (2017) Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 47:5, 403–462, DOI: 10.1080/02773945.2017.1369822.