Gene Logsdon and Friends

Human Bodies For Fertilizer?

In Gene's Weekly Posts on November 14, 2012 at 5:16 am


From GENE LOGSDON

I thought I had an original idea recently only to find that thousands of others were way ahead of me. I got to thinking about cemeteries and their potential for garden farming while making death a little less abhorrent. That’s when I had this “new” idea that actually is very old but is now a new movement.

Have you heard about “green burials”?  A growing number of people want to be buried without toxic embalming fluids like formaldehyde, in a shroud or cardboard box or cheap, wooden, readily-biodegradable coffin. Since our bodies are going to decompose no matter what (even in mummification), why not let them return to life-giving humus naturally, thereby enriching the soil?

So I’ve been entertaining myself with a bizarre vision of cemeteries as gardens and orchards of lush food plants fertilized by all that nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, trace elements and organic matter that dead bodies would provide. Could human culture advance toward the true definition of immortality, the enfolding of our remains back into the food chain to contribute to the health of the environment even in death?

I see on Google that every year we are burying 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults, 2700 tons of copper and bronze caskets, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete, and some 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, mostly formaldehyde which destroys microbial life in the soil. Even if these numbers are not quite accurate, they make the point very well.

Green burial is not a new idea. Jewish law forbids embalming and if I’ve got my research correct, Islamic law encourages burying bodies in a simple shroud. It seems to be more a Western culture thing to make a big show of trying to slow down the decomposition of human remains. England requires coffin burial by law, for example. In the U.S., there are many regulations in some areas and remarkably few in others, considering our penchant for making rules about everything. The green burial people are working this all out to keep everything legal.

My imagination leaps forward to a time when enlightenment finally comes to the human race. Cemeteries become lush gardens of fruits, grains, vegetables, and trees for food and for building materials (coffins?) with a farmer’s market at the entrance to sell the produce. Tombstones could be shaped like benches (there is a cemetery in Washington D.C. where this is already true) for visitors to rest from weeding their cemetery garden plots, or from pruning their cemetery trees, or just to relax while eating lunch or engaging in idle conversation. That just might encourage them to share memories of their loved ones now enriching their plants. The dead in this way would achieve a real kind of immortality.  Cemetery gardeners might even rest there in their lovely Edenic surroundings and say nice things about living people, even the ones they differ with politically.

Cemeteries could be oases of wildlife as some of them already are. Rare native prairie flowers sometimes show up in old Midwestern cemeteries. A couple of winters ago, the cemetery just down the road from our place had a rare visit from flocks of red crossbills, eating seeds out of the cones of hemlock trees which are not native here like they are in the crossbill’s arboreal forests in the far north. There was a shortage of crossbill food in the far north that year and the birds found life in our sanctuary of the dead.

I wonder if anyone has calculated the fertilizer value of all the human bodies we encase in metal and concrete every year, or in rare, moisture-resistant woods from endangered tree species.
~~

  1. I love this idea and have been checking into it. I want to be compost when I die–no coffin, no embalming–but a friend pointed out that if a body is buried 6 feet under, as most laws require, it’s below subsoil and won’t compost? Is that so?
    I definitely do not want to become just more toxic waste in a graveyard. But other than digging a shallow grave and falling into it at just the right time, I haven’t figured out how to do this legally and without causing problems for my children.

    • Betty, yesterday Mandy, the daughter of my neighbor who has cancer, made the statment to me. Mom & Dad wil be buried in their back yard. (Mandy will inherit her parents’ property. SHE STATED THAT SHE WIL BE VERY SAD EVERY TIME SHE WALKS OUT INTO THE BACK YARD. The surverior should be the main consideration in this matter.

    • For more than 30 yrs I’ve lobbied freezing bodies and “planting them” below fruit trees. Needless to say there have been few folks jumping on-board.

    • Dear Betty,
      6 feet IS deep, but not too deep in all situations, and not if you’re under the taproot of a tree! To further clarify and set your mind at rest: the law is not 6′ under and the “law” (often a “rule”, not a law) varies from State to State. With regard to burial depth, all rules I’ve read refer to the amount of soil required on top of the body or coffin. In Oregon, 20 inches is required. Check out the ideas at “Be a Tree” at http://www.beatree.com and download a copy of the free Natural Funeral Planner to help you think through the basics so your children don’t have to; also, visit the Natural End Map (http://www.naturalendmap.com) over the next few years; we’re adding more cemeteries that accommodate vault-free burials every month. In a few years, I expect to see hundreds of cemeteries participating!

      in trees,

  2. “Food” for thought! I must say that I’ve never before given the impact of the trappings of burial any consideration.
    Thanks, Gene!
    Patti

  3. Great post Gene. I decided on a green burial years ago. Not sure how much greener cremation is than burial? I figure the ashes are surely greener than embalming fluid and steel but perhaps heating that high in the first place affects the carbon footprint just as much?

  4. I’m very interested in the idea of being composted rather than buried at all. The bias right now would prevent it, I suspect. In NC, you have to bury the bits from you chicken processing down far enough to be outside the realm of composting action.

    Which is too bad, ’cause, as far as can tell, managed composting is the best way to neutralize the toxic elements of decomposition the fastest.

  5. well we could also eat Soylent Green…

  6. What about the impact of residual drugs & medications?

  7. You are correct about Jewish law. We do not embalm our dead, and we usually bury them in a simple wooden casket. Death to us is not a fancy celebration, it is a body being returned to where it came from as the soul moves on.

  8. The last verse of Guy Clark’s song “Home Grown Tomatoes”:

    Oh, if I could change this life I lead / I’d be Johnny Tomatoseed / ’cause I know what this country needs / Home grown tomatoes in every yard you see.

    So when I die don’t you bury me / in a plot in a cemetery / Out in the garden would be much better / so I could be pushing up home grown tomatoes!

    (Chorus is pretty good too)

    Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes / What would life be without home grown tomatoes / There’s only two things that money can’t buy / True love, and home grown tomatoes.

  9. Could we turn them into woodlands instead of food gardens? I’d rather make trees with birds and squirrels and families scampering along trails than food. We need woodland trees, too.

  10. As Dandelion B. Treecraft said in his obituary, “A caravan of grave-digging friends and well-wishers are expected to provide funereal talent, shovels, sweat, cheer, graveside manners. Eulogizers of quick-witted brevity are welcome to speak. Long-winded droners may be stoned and used as backfill. Bring a picnic lunch to share, and something to sit on.”

    Read his posts at http://www.feistylife.com/deadmantalking/ to learn what he went through on arranging his natural burial.

    The energy wastes for cremation are enormous and the poisoning of the commons by embalming allude to our collective self-centeredness and disregard for the future. Embalming is burying a poison-ridden cork not even maggots are willing to touch. THAT is sad.

    Instead, a natural burial allows the mycelium and biome in the soil to consume us which in turn will nourish the rest of biosphere. To think that a few seasons after burial, a caterpillar could rise out of the ground, climb a tree, become a moth which –after hopefully procreating– will likely be digested by a wren that will use that nourishment to lay an egg out of which a songbird will tweet, with the carbon that once made up your body and now part of the make up of its vocal cords, is perfect recycling to me.

    Though your view of a garden cemetery may not be feasible because of the pathogens in our bodies that need neutralizing first. This may be the reason why in many societies burial grounds are accompanied by certain taboos that help in keeping people away that have no business there.

  11. Well, Mom and Dad always wanted me to go to medical school, so I figured out a way to make that happen: when I croak, I’m going to be a cadaver. After two years of poking me and laughing at me, they cremate me for free, and hand over my ashes to my friend, who has instructions to scatter them in my valley. I’m getting back into the game as a spring wildflower, and working my way up the chain, in the only place in the world that felt like home to me. I never understood the whole embalming thing, or even funerals; seems like a poor time to say nice things about someone, when they can’t hear you.

  12. I am totally opposed to burials, green or otherwise.
    Even in Barecelona’s Montjuïc Cemetery, where over a million bodies and urns of ashes are piled on top of each other in multistory niches as an extension after death of the multistory buildings and apartments where their previous owners lived, it is still a waste of space and a luxury we can’t afford, at least around big cities.

    It will be cremation for me, like some Native Americans and Indians do. Then just spread the ashes somewhere and plant a “rosemary for remembrance” as Shakespeare said, or mix them with lavender and virgin olive oils to make a bar of soap if your fetish is to wash from the ashes of dead people on Halloween, I don’t care, I am no more. On the other hand, careful with that soap, it’s not really ashes in the urn, but mostly ground burnt bones.

    The only drawback is that cremation is still a very expensive process, and just as with “green” burials, it usually involves refrigerating the body for a couple of days, which is not so green. The use of gas to burn the body is not very green either, but it’s only for 3 hours and happens only once in your lifetime hopefully, so I think we can indulge in it, it won’t cause extra global warming. If I had may say, we’d use biomethane for a greener cremation.

    A really green way to compost bodies should include grinding or shredding the body parts for faster decomposition, and mixing this with vegetal residue to absorb the liquids. Just don’t forget not to look at the shredder, not because it is gruesome, but because of the “I saw her finger move!” effect when the body is already half way in…

  13. Although I’m certain there’s some law against it, I want to be scavenged when I’m gone.

    If a couple bears or wolves or eagles consume me, they’ll accelerate the composting process, no?

  14. Because I once worked in a mortuary and several family members also have, I’m well aware of the great expense and in my opinion , waste of resources that goes into fancy funerals and coffins, vaults etc. My own Mother and Father were buried in caskets in a concrete vault, although it seems a waste of resources to me. Gene raises some excellent points.

    I remember Pete Seeger in a Mother Earth News interview back in the good old days referring to this topic rather humorously within a poem from one of his friends about being buried in a compost pile and then used to fertilize a garden , followed by the friends of the deceased becoming consumers as in: eating the resulting produce fertilized by the body enriched compost, then flushing with a grin and saying: ” there goes BIll again”. Cowboy poetry also refers to the topic in a delightful poem about reincarnation.

    Gene refers to animal carcasses in a compost pile in his marvelous books on composting and manure management. In my personal experience, I have observed cattle carcasses buried in a large manure and litter laden compost pile. The only evidence of a cow carcass I observed after the fact was a horn that somehow ended up on the outside and to my surprise there was no smell of a rotting carcass.

    In my experience and according to the scientific literature Formaldehyde and other carbon compounds are eventually biodegradable if diluted and placed in the presence of such organisms as are found in compost piles. Fungi can secrete enzymes that can break apart recalcitrant carbon rings or go after nutrients such a phosphorus. In short, nature can deal with bodies given adequate moisture and conditions for decay. Although, in contrast, we obviously find mummies such as the Iceman when the environment is:, too cold, too dry or no free air or the pH is not favorable to decomposition. Witness for examples: other mummies in bogs, pyramids, high in Andean mountains etc.

    But a large compost pile is managed such that decomposition is favored, Hence, decomposition should be fairly rapid if the pile is of sufficient size and well made. At least if a cow carcass in a compost pile can rapidly disappear into its organic constituents, then a human body shouldn’t pose much of a challenge to the appropriate organisms.

    It’s a good idea however to keep dogs and other scavengers away from the pile until decomposition is complete. Dogs chewing on partially decomposed body parts in the yard might bring the authorities down upon the yard owner.

    I’m told by my lovely spouse that she observed in Britain wherein graveyards, especially those where children were buried were playground parks for living children to play. In addition, I’ve read in National Geographic that in some regions of the Himalayan Mountains bodies are placed on platforms high in the mountains for the vultures to eat. That sounds about as green as one can get. I would think however that carrying capacity of vulture appetites might be exceeded in times of war or starvation or pestilence.

    It’s good to remember a life of a loved one, but it seems we Americans can become overly preoccupied about the remains after the life is departed. Not to say we never provide a bouquet at a funeral, but my wife and I also give flowers to folks we love when they’re alive to enjoy them. However, they come from our garden that is fertilized with compost, not from a florist. Life is short, let your loved ones know you love them when they are alive to acknowledge it.
    /jmt.

    • Reincarnation
      by Wallace McRae

      “What does Reincarnation mean?”
      A cowpoke asked his friend.
      His pal replied, “It happens when
      Yer life has reached its end.
      They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
      And clean yer fingernails,
      And lay you in a padded box
      Away from life’s travails.”

      “The box and you goes in a hole,
      That’s been dug in the ground.
      Reincarnation starts in when
      Yore planted ‘neath a mound.
      Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
      And you who is inside.
      And then yore just beginnin’ on
      Yer transformation ride.”

      “In a while, the grass’ll grow
      Upon yer rendered mound.
      Till some day on yer moldered grave
      A lonely flower is found.
      And say a hoss should wander by
      And graze upon this flower
      That once wuz you, but now’s become
      Yer vegetative bower.”

      “The posy that the hoss done ate
      Up, with his other feed,
      Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
      Essential to the steed,
      But some is left that he can’t use
      And so it passes through,
      And finally lays upon the ground
      This thing, that once wuz you.”

      “Then say, by chance, I wanders by
      And sees this upon the ground,
      And I ponders, and I wonders at,
      This object that I found.
      I thinks of reincarnation,
      Of life and death, and such,
      And come away concludin’: ‘Slim,
      You ain’t changed, all that much.’”

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      RE: the vultures – actually, a limiting factor has become the vultures themselves; their populations have declined and the decline has been linked to pesticides affecting the resilience of their eggshells (the DDT problem).

      RE: formaldehyde – the problems associated with it, aside from destroying the microbes you mention, and aside from our ignorance about the decomposition process itself (with research indicating that it’s a complex stepped and timed process, and if key decomposers miss their turn to do their job, the process can stop completely – read up on “adipocere” and grave-wax problems in cemeteries), are chiefly around the toxic-exposure to mortuary workers. Unless the embalmers are taking haz-mat precautions (and most don’t) their health suffers — mortuary workers are in the top tier for health-related problems from their profession, and the affects can include neurological damage (ALS), cancer, and other issues.

      best,
      Cynthia

  15. As always Gene your post and near and dear to my heart. Although I would prefer to be buried on my land and farm that I would hope would be in my family for generations (just like in your novel “The Last of the Husbandmen”); I realize that this is not realistic. Thus I have looked at “green” or natural burials. I am lucky enough to live close to a nature preserve cemetery (Foxfield Preserve in Wilmot Ohio). The Foxfield Preserve website has a lot of information regarding natural burials. One interesting fact Betty is that you are buried 3.5 feet under and not 6 feet. I am not planning on needing a natural burial for quite some time; however I will fight like hell to keep this as an option in Ohio. As a sidenote Gene I enjoyed meeting you again at this years Buckeye Book Fair. You have helped me “find myself” and truly come home again.

  16. A few years ago I told my husband that if I die before he does, I’d like to be cremated and have my ashes dumped on the compost heap so my atoms can go back into my garden. But I think he’d be a little squeamish about eating my ashes in the produce, so I let him know that scattering me in the woods would be acceptable, too.

  17. Wonderful Post, great remarks after. Don’t know if they’re still up to it but trappistcaskets.com used to make simple nice bookshelf-coffins you could use while alive, then remove the shelves for your bod when timing’s right. Never enough bookehelves,& a good reminder to live until you die! (the Trappist monks harvest sustainably-grown trees, and have a nice shop to stay out of trouble in.)

  18. I suspect some of us are a bit more full of fertilizer than others…

  19. As long as there is a lot of money to be made in burials the present system will continue. To not contribute to this madness I have decided to donate my body to science and when they are finished the remains will be cremated. Unfortunately where I live the ashes cannot be spread on my garden but will be interned in a wall instead.

  20. I guess we could also donate our bodies to the Body Farm in Tennessee for research. You know the place, where they leave you on top of the ground to study how fast you decompose and what insects show up at what stage. A bit gruesome but assurance of becoming compost!

    Actually the law in Tennessee allows me to be buried on my farm–the family just needs a death certificate. The catch is the grave must be 6 feet down, marked, and the site set apart for family access even if the land is sold, which I’m pretty sure my children would do. So unless laws change, my current plans are for cremation and to be scattered on the farm. Would prefer, however, to be anonymous compost!

  21. I guess it’d be a new twist to the story of John Smith learning from the Indians at Jamestown
    to put a fish in every hill of corn,so now we can put a human at the base of every Apple Tree.Although I have doubted that story ever since I heard it in the 4th grade as I live not too far from Jamestown and the Raccoons and Possoms would have had that fish dug up before Midnight.Made for a good story I guess if you got your information about animals from Disney.Probably something like you suggest happens now in China as they have so many people they’d run out of land to bury them quickly.

  22. Good observation, Budd E. Shepherd; very true.

    I just recalled that back when the movie “The Godfather” came out, it seemed most of my college friends from New Jersey and New York seemed to have relatives in the mafia, and talked of burying people in the marshes of N.J. I told them of the ultimate omnivore, the hog, and said the mafia should partner with some hog farmers for body disposal: there would be no evidence left. Er, the hogs use everything but the squeal, so to speak. They were recyclers way ahead of their time, new meaning for Bob Evans and Jimmy Dean sausage.

  23. If someone could research a couple of decades ago in the Wall Street Journal’s “T-Bar” articles [way back when the center front page story column ran down from beneath the major headline], there was a story about the ubiquitous filamentous parasites that rapidly gained access to the encased corpses, penetrating even the lead-sealed and hermetically-sealed steel caskets, hastening the decay process despite the formalin and other substances.

  24. Burial is an Abrahamic tradition. In other traditions (Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist) cremation is the norm. It has been commented that cemeteries ues up valuable real estate. Even with the purpose of memorialising the dead, in the span of a few generations they fade from living memory and the significance of such memorials wanes.

  25. No, no, no, how about Sky Burial like they do in Tibet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial) ? If i had my choice i’d want to be mummified Egyptian style to be preserved until technology is advanced enough so that i could be reanimate in the future. OR, i’d like to be turned in to Soilent Green and fed to my enemies… Overall i think with rampant overpopulation, urban sprawl, and diminishing resources, taking up space with cemeteries is a waste of space.

  26. Dear Gene,

    To your direct question, has anyone calculated… a back-of-the-napkin equation isn’t that far off.
    About .89% of us die each year, just under 1%. The US cremation rate is nearing 40%, so 60%+ are buried. 99%+ of burials are in OBCs (Outer Burial Containers), so whether or not the container itself is degradable, the OBC makes that degradation moot. For argument’s sake, lets give the average weight at burial 140# (a WAG) and assume that 100% of it is nutrient-based. If we do the math, on a US population of 300 million, that’s 158.5K OBC-inhibited bodies at a total of almost 23 million pounds of HABITAT fertilizer, (since one of my main pitches through Oregon State University’s new sustainable cemetery management efforts is re-visioning the Cemetery as Habitat)
    I’ve proposed to several carbon-footprint-measurement folks that we take this natural-interment figure and turn it into a carbon-offset factor (so popular these days) — right now, in the current equation, a human is seen primarily as a resource drain on the system for the course of a life; at death, the drain ceases, making it look better without people than with them.
    By naturally burying 145 pounds x ______ of highly compostable nutrient instead of sequestering it from elemental reintegration indefinitely (or worse, but I won’t go into that here), the end of a human life could reformulate as a gain for the resources-bank on the positive side of the human-impact equation: carbon lock-up (as more carbon is locked up for longer in healthy humus than in above-ground vegetation), slow-release nutrient piles (cadaver decomposition islands, they’re called :-)), habitat-funding for the revitalization of EXISTING cemeteries, increasingly desperate for support, and peace-of-mind for an increasing number of people as they face their last conscious act.

    As a long-time contrarian who’s followed your work (http://www.naturalburialcompany.com/about_us/index.html) and promoted your thoughts in the past, I love your post and thank you for it.

    in trees,

    Cynthia

    • Cynthia, Many many thanks for your interesting and helpful calculations. And pleased to meet you. I know I’m going to be writing more about natural burial (chapter in a book I’m laboring on) so I will no doubt be looking you up online. Gene

      • Great. As a post-50-year-old Lifetime Contrarian (I teach that “green” is a color, for example, partly to be clear, but primarily to have the conversation!), I imagine I’ll have a few twists to add to your turns – who wants a straight road, anyhow, eh?. Cynthia

  27. I’m late to the party – or perhaps wake would be a better description.

    Belle’s tree is a basswood planted on the hillside just to the west of our house. We planted it 3 years ago over the ashes of our stillborn granddaughter Belle Ruthanne. My daughter-in-law read a poem that she had written to Belle during the family ceremony we had when we planted it. Interestingly, it was titled the same as your aching ode to your mother – “Roots”. Belle has some wind chimes hanging in her branches and we sometimes hear her singing in the summer when the windows are open. Her sisters and parents will be coming for the family gathering this week and they will spend some time with her.

    • Now isn’t that a most beautiful image?! To live on through the roots and up through the trunk and on to the very branches, ever reaching to the sky.

  28. It’s easy to find references to Egyptian mummies being ground and used for fertilizer on the Internet (“so it must be true”). A search for “human bone fertilizer” turns up a reference in an official UN publication: “Fertilizer Manual”; in the 18th century, bones were gathered from “battlefields or burial sites”.

  29. Planting a tree over the burial site could be problematic in a paradigm of reincarnation (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain), particularly where even trees have souls: the soul of the person may have to spend a (tree’s) lifetime as the tree!

    • “the soul of the person may have to spend a (tree’s) lifetime as the tree!”

      I could think of a lot of worse ways to spend a lifetime than as a tree.

  30. When my brother was killed in a car accident a decade ago, I instinctively recoiled at the idea of embalming. We’d been roommates a long time, and my first thought was “I didn’t spend all that money on organic chickens just to shoot him full of chemicals now!” Cremation, while energy-inefficient, was the only logical option in that case, especially since I had to travel with his remains back to our hometown, and I couldn’t afford to ship a coffin.

    My sweetheart lost a friend a few years back to suicide — a carpenter. All the carpenter friends instinctively gathered in Braden’s workshop to build his coffin. It was heartbreaking but beautiful. Our plan is that if it’s feasible, we’ll bury one another on his 20 acres, out where we’ve buried all the pets — plain box, fertilize the trees, and quietly, the world will move on (and who ever buys it out of probate will just have to deal with the two of us out there behind the firepit).

  31. There was an alternative rock group named “Belly” that had a song called “Feed the Tree”. The song is about commitment and respect in general, but the title refers to the practice of burying family members around a certain tree on the farm.

  32. I’m a big fan of composting dead bodies. In just a few months there is nothing but a grey stain. I run mostly static compost piles, only turning them once or twice over a year before spreading them on my orchards or making new gardens. In the turning I mix in some soil. I’ve composted pigs as large as 1,700 lbs. Even the bones and teeth dissolve. The hardest thing to compost is wool on sheep. That lasts a lot longer than everything else. Composting is a much better alternative than pickling (formaldehyde) or extra crispy (cremation) – both of which are a waste of materials and energy.

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