New York recently became the sixth state to legalize body composting after death.
The procedure turns your remains into soil that your loved ones can use to grow a plant.
Experts say it is a greener alternative to traditional burials. Here's how it works.
It was an unusual way to mark the new year: On 31st December, 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul approved a bill making New York the sixth US state to allow body composting.
Also known as natural organic reduction, the process turns your body into soil that your loved ones can use to grow plants in.
We asked Recompose, a Washington-based natural organic service, how it works and why the process is more eco-friendly than a traditional burial.
A step-by-step guide to turning your body into dirt
Just because it has been legalized doesn't mean you'll start seeing bodies piling up in your garden compost. The body needs to be processed by a certified organic reduction facility.
Here's how it works at Recompose, per their website.
The whole point of the process is to encourage the effective decomposition of the body. So it's important that nothing inorganic is added to the chamber.
Because of this, there is no embalming involved, the body is simply wrapped in organic cotton material.
Loved ones can place flowers or other organic materials with the body before it is transferred to the composting area.
The composting takes place in these futuristic hexagonal chambers. The body is placed on a bed of organic material and covered with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw.
It remains in the chamber for 30 days. During this time, bacteria in the chamber break down the body and other organic material.
Air is pumped into the temperature and moisture-controlled chamber. The vessel rotates on a regular basis to create the perfect environment for the body to degrade.
By the end of the process, all that is left is soil. Any inorganic medical implants that the person may have had fitted during their lifetime are removed. Some bone fragments may remain, which are ground down and returned to the soil.
The soil is then tested for safety and left to dry. Within six to eight weeks, the body is turned into about a square foot of usable soil, which loved ones can come to collect, or it can be deposited in a nearby forest.
The process costs $7,000, according to Recompose. That is comparable to the price of a traditional burial, costing on average $7,848 for a funeral and and $6,970 for a cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors association's 2021 survey.
This approach is greener than traditional burials
So it is greener than other modes of burial? Yes - mostly, says an expert who was commissioned by Recompose to study its carbon footprint.
Troy Hottle, an environmental sustainability and life cycle assessment analyst, estimated the cost of each step of the process involving composting, cremation, and traditional, casketed burials.
Insider did not see the detail of this study, but Hottle said that according to his calculations, composting should expend fewer greenhouse gases than other more traditional burial services.
"There's tons of natural gas used in cremation. And the body itself is burned, so the carbon from the body is also released to the atmosphere," he said.
Embalming before cremation can also add to the cost, and it also depends on what kind of coffin is used before the cremation. But at least in this scenario, the ashes don't take up any space.
When it comes to traditional casketed burials, the coffin, the embalming, the concrete used to make the plot, and the maintenance of the land, all add to the carbon cost of the plot, he said.
But there are less obvious carbon-greedy parts of the burial as well. The gravestones add to the carbon footprint, because they are usually transported from far away and can break during their journey.
The land that is used for the plot also adds to the carbon cost, especially in highly urbanized areas, said Hottle.
"If you replace farmland or something that's out in the suburbs of the city to have a burial site, all of a sudden you've pushed your boundary for warehouses or workplaces or where the food that has to be grown," he said.
That means people have to travel further, and food is transported from further away.
Composting is mostly, but not always, a greener solution
"Composting, by freeing up that land, can be not only green but also a good way to keep that urbanization from spreading out," he said.
Of course, it's a well-known fact that garden composting can release methane, a greenhouse gas that's about three times more potent than CO2.
"You're hearing about people doing backyard composting and they don't do a great job of it, and it gets stinky," he said.
"An anaerobic situation would generate methane, uh, which is where you get sort of stinkiness," he said.
But Hottle says in this case, there's no risk of that happening
At Recompose, the body is regularly turned over and the chamber is aerated to avoid bacteria being trapped in an airless environment. That's what prevents the generation of methane.
Still, Hottle says that composting might not always be the greenest option, depending on where you are.
A green ground burial, for instance, where the body is simply deposited in the earth without a gravestone, can be a much better option then, especially if there's no competition for farmland or houses.
"If somebody like me is living in North Carolina and I want the greenest burial possible, and I'm like: 'ship my body up to Seattle so I can be composted at Recompose,' that would not be a good option," he said.