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Environmentally Friendly Burial Choice: Body Composting

Co-owner of The Natural Funeral, Seth Viddal, stands next to his body composting vessel, 2021. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)
Co-owner of The Natural Funeral, Seth Viddal, stands next to his body composting vessel, 2021. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)
Environmentally Friendly Burial Choice: Body Composting
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Outside of the city of Denver, Colorado, a large industrial building sits between an auto repair business and a used computer business. In that building, a man deals daily with life and death.

Seth Viddal and his employees have built a burial container, or “vessel.”

Recently they told reporters from the Associated Press that they hope this vessel will be the start of a more environmentally friendly type of burial science. This process will include the natural breakdown of the human body. Those in the burial business call this body composting.

“It is a natural process where the body is returned to an elemental level over a short period of time,” said Viddal.

He said it is similar to composting of food and yard waste. “This is the same process, but done with a human body inside of a vessel, and in our case, in a controlled environment.”

On September 7, 2021, Colorado became the second state after Washington to permit human body composting. Oregon will permit the practice beginning next July. In Washington state, there are three businesses licensed to compost human remains.

Together, they have composted at least 85 bodies since the law took effect in May 2020. More than 900 people have signed up for this service as natural funerals become more popular.

Body composting process

Viddal co-owns The Natural Funeral in Lafayette, Colorado.

Soon after the Colorado legislation was signed into law, he started building the vessel in an industrial part of town.

The vessel is about 2 meters long, about one meter wide, and about one meter deep. The box is lined with waterproof material and packed with wood chips and straw. Two large wheels on either end, allow it to be rolled across the floor. This provides the air and movement needed for a body to compost.

The vessel must reach 55 degrees Celsius for 72 continuous hours to kill any bacteria and germs. Teeth are removed to prevent poisoning from chemicals used in teeth repair.

Then after about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is examined for medical devices. The remaining large bones are returned to the vessel for another three months of composting.

In six months, the body, wood chips, and straw will turn into soil. Family members can keep the soil to use in their yards. However, Colorado law forbids selling it and using it to grow food for human use. Also, the state only permits licensed funeral homes and crematories to compost human bodies.

Viddal calls the process an “exciting” environmentally friendly choice. He added that in death, he also sees life.

“Composting itself is a very living function and it is performed by living organisms,” he told reporters. He added that there are billions of microbes in our bodies. And when life ends, the life of those microbes continues.

Viddal said body composting successfully turns the body back into something good for the Earth.

However, not everyone approves of body composting.

The Colorado Catholic Conference is a group of religious leaders who aim to shape public policy. They oppose the process. The religious organization said in statements that body composting “does not promote human dignity.”

Some Jewish religious leaders are also against body composting. They say it violates Jewish religious law.

Other opponents are concerned about a lack of research. They fear the body compost might poison the soil. They also fear misuse of the body soil.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it if they take it all home,” said Stacey Kleinman. She is a board member of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association.

The group helped to write the legislation, but has said is not for or against body composting.

Opposition aside, several other U.S. states are considering body composting. More Americans seem to be becoming open to “green” burial practices.

This past summer, the Choice Mutual Insurance Agency asked 1,500 Americans how they wanted their bodies to be dealt with. Traditional burial and cremation were the common answer.

However, 11 percent said they would choose a burial involving a natural process. Back in 2020, only 4 percent said they would choose that.

Choice Mutual did not specifically ask about body composting. But the results seem to show an increased interest in more natural and environmentally friendly options.

Cost of body composting

The Natural Funeral charges $7,900 for body composting, compared with $2,200 for flame cremation. Viddal notes that a traditional burial and service in the Denver area can cost more than $10,000. The company has not yet composted any bodies, but several people have signed up and paid for the service.

Micah Truman is head of the company Return Home near Seattle, Washington. So far, his company has composted 16 bodies.

Truman said body composting is new. So he said it is a matter of “changing hearts and minds right now.” But he has been surprised by how many young people are interested.

“Our young people are going to teach us how to die better. It has been really powerful for us,” Truman said. He added that younger generations have a greater connection to living and dying in ways that are friendlier to the Earth.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report.

I’m Anna Matteo.

And I’m Caty Weaver.

Thomas Peipert reported this story from Lafayette, Colorado for the Associated Press. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in This Story

compost –v. to convert (a material, such as plant debris) to compost : -n. decayed organic material (as of leaves and grass) used to improve soil especially for growing crops

level -n. an amount of something

yard -n. a small usually walled and often paved area open to the sky and adjacent to a building : yard waste -n. cut grass, clippings from trees, bushes, and other plants

funeral -n. a ceremony held for a dead person

allow –v. to give permission to

function -n. the action for which a person or thing is designed or used

cremation –v. the process of reducing a dead body to mostly tiny bits of bone resembling ash that involves exposing the body to flame and intense heat followed by pulverization of bone fragments

microbe -n. an extremely small living thing that can only be seen with a microscope

dignity -n. the quality or state of being worthy of honor and respect