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Human composting burial legalized in California English Headline


Ashes to ashes, dust to … dirt?

Californians looking to honor the Earth even after death will soon be able to choose to have their remains composted in the Golden State.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Sunday that will allow human compost burials, or natural organic reduction (NOR), in the state beginning in 2027.

Assembly Bill 351, introduced by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, frames the organic decomposition of human remains into soil as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial methods.

“With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment,” Garcia said in a statement in June, “[NOR] is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere.”

Assemblymember Cristina Garcia spearheaded legalizing NOR in California.
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia spearheaded legalizing NOR in California.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Gov. Newsom, pictured last week, signed the bill into law on Sunday.
Gov. Newsom signed the bill into law on Sunday.
AP

NOR involves placing the deceased body in an 8-foot steel box surrounded by biodegradable materials like wood chips. The box is aerated to allow microbes and bacteria to grow. The remains are then decomposed into soil in about 30 to 60 days.

Human-composted soil will be returned to the deceased’s family, or otherwise donated to conservation land.

NOR is less energy-intensive than cremation, which burns fossil fuels and emits carbon monoxide. According to National Geographic, cremations in the US emit about 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, poses with human remains composted into soil.
Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, shows human remains composted into soil.
AP

Composting is also a more economical alternative to traditional burial services. A 2021 study by the National Funeral Directors Association reported that the average funeral with a viewing and burial cost $7,848. According to US Funerals Online, NOR is cheaper, at between $4,000 and $5,500.

California is the fifth state to legalize human composting; the practice is already legal in Washington, Colorado, Vermont and Oregon. At the forefront of the NOR movement is Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a Washington-based funeral home specializing in human composting.

“It’s not easy to think about after-death choices,” Spade said in a statement. 

The NOR process involves decomposing the body alongside wood chips and flowers.
The NOR process involves decomposing the body alongside wood chips and flowers.
AFP via Getty Images

“Natural organic reduction is safe, sustainable, and informed by nature. This process would provide Californians an option that offers significant savings in carbon emissions and land usage over conventional burial or cremation.”

Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, another NOR funeral home in Washington, agreed with Spade’s assessment.

“With cremation, instead of sitting with our person and saying goodbye, we are very divorced from the process,” he told the Guardian. Demand for NOR is increasing, he added, with families from 12 other states where the practice is not legal traveling for Return Home’s “gentle, inclusive, and transparent death care.”

Vessels for NOR at the Return Home funeral home in Auburn, WA.
Vessels for NOR at the Return Home funeral home in Auburn, Wash.
AFP via Getty Images

When the soil process is completed, Truman explained, “the rules are identical to that of cremated remains.” Some families plant trees or flowers, or scatter the soil in the ocean, while one farmer specifically requested to be replanted on his beloved land.

Still, not everyone is pleased that human composting is becoming more popular. The California Catholic Conference submitted a letter in June opposing AB 351, saying it “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”

Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, noted that the NOR process stems from the methods originally developed for livestock.

NOR advocate Katrina Space poses with composted remains.
NOR advocate Katrina Spade poses with composted remains.
AP

“These methods of disposal were used to lessen the possibility of disease being transmitted by the dead carcass,” she said. “Using these same methods for the ‘transformation’ of human remains can create an unfortunate spiritual, emotional and psychological distancing from the deceased.”

Garcia, however, remains undeterred and is interested in opting for NOR when she passes away herself.

“I look forward to continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree,” she said.

Truman says that human compost burials are becoming more popular.
Truman says human compost burials are becoming more popular.
AFP via Getty Images

After Newsom’s signature approved the practice in California, NOR is also awaiting legalization in New York. Spearheaded by Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), Assembly Bill A382 is pending review by Gov. Kathy Hochul.



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