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Recompose, “Humusation” as an emerging alternative to burial and cremation

By Susanne Duijvestein, sustainable funeral director at Bijafscheid

What if, after this life, you can be food for new life? What if plants, trees, micro-organisms and small animals thrive thanks to your remains? Being the the first in the world, Washington State allowed humusation starting from April 2019: human composting into fertile humus for the creation of infinite new life cycles. Also in Belgium, experiments are being conducted around the natural alternative to burial and cremation. Are you interested in living on forever?


Buried or cremated

Of all living things on the earth, the human man is the only species trying to escape the decomposition process. In nature this is inevitable: the dead body decomposes and is assisted by bacteria, fungi, insects, scavenging mammals and birds. A colorful collection of life that benefits from death, all enjoying their own part of the table, all useful.

In addition to nature, there is culture. For ritual, emotional and hygienic reasons, humanity has a long tradition in burials and cremating. After all, with so many people on the planet, it is best when dead human bodies are not scattered around decomposing out in the open. It would make us sick, so we had to think of something. The options: under the ground or burn.


Interestingly, over the course of history, we we introduced the coffin. As a result, we excluded nature from the decomposition process. On top of that burying is taking place so deep—six feet under the groundwhere there is hardly any soil life left, so our bodies are not absorbed by nature anymore.


So burial and cremation are the world’s main forms of funerals, but certainly not everywhere. In the high mountains of Tibet, China and Iran, for example, due to the cold and lack of trees, it is a practical necessity to give the body back to nature to be eaten by the vultures. But back to humusation: what kind of an alternative does this promise to be?



Images from Humusatie.be



Humusation

An experiment of humusation is currently taking place in Belgium. The initiators describe it as a process in which the body of the deceased is digested thanks to the micro-organisms from the compost of wood chips through which the remains transform into fertile compost soil. It is like composting as we do with our organic waste. And as it is intended by nature. The experiments with humusation in Belgium take place in a protected open-air laboratory. The deceased is wrapped in a shroud of an ecologically degradable fabric, without clothes and jewelery. The body is placed on a bed of pruned wood and crushed brown coal, impregnated with rainwater with compost starter. Then, the body is covered with a layer of compost of vegetable—chopped material. Humusation therefore takes place above the ground instead of below, but as parting ritual has similarities with a burial. The pile forms a "monument" of the deceased, where flowers can be planted to make it beautiful and personal.


After about three months, the pile will be diminished in size drastically, because the flesh of the body has been digested by the countless micro-organisms and soil bacteria. The proteins of the meat are absorbed by the natural polymers of the cellulose, coming from the vegetable material and which form into humus. What remains are the bones (and any metal prostheses and other non-biodegradable materials) which will be removes and pulverized. Clay and biodynamic preparations are added and the moisture level is adjusted. With this mixture, the monument is rebuilt. And after nine months of composting, the remains have been transformed into a healthy and fertile humus, rich in all kinds of minerals and ready to feed new life with.


The family of the deceased can collect the "super compost" after about twelve months. The presentation is undoubtedly more beautiful, but in fact it is a bag of potting soil. It can be used in our own yard, for example to plant a new tree to commemorate someone's life, or to give impoverished soils in other parts of the world more nutrition. Nice concept right?




Images from Olson Kundig, the future composting facility in Washington, designed by architectural firm Olson Kundig


Recompose

Also in Seattle is there is experimenting with humusation. In fact, last April, Washington State officially legalized humus as an alternative to burial and cremation. This will be put into practice starting from May 2020. Recompose initiator Katrina Spade explains: “Our bodies are full of potential. We have nutrients in us and there’s no way we should be packed into a box that doesn’t let us go into the earth. Decay and decomposition are amazing processes we are terrified of because they might seem icky and scary—your body aging, your food rotting— but without those processes, we would not be alive.”


Supported by a crowd from Kickstarter, Spade (originally an architect) and her team are developing the facility where the facility should start off. Unlike in Belgium, the humusation process takes place in separate revolving booths, also equipped with wood chips and all kinds of compost cultures.



Read also

- Essay: Do not feat the grieving

- Documentary: Innsæi, the sea within

- Book: The Physics of Angels

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