Human Composting Now Legal in California

Compared to cremation, turning your body into mulch keeps a surprising amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

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Katrina Spade, the CEO of Recompose, poses with mulch made from a dead cow in 2019.
Katrina Spade, the CEO of Recompose, poses with mulch made from a dead cow in 2019.
Photo: Elaine Thompson (AP)

In a few years, people in California will have a new choice for what to do with their loved ones’ bodies after death: put them in their garden.

This weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that makes human composting legal in the state beginning in 2027. The bill, AB-351, makes California the fifth state to allow human composting since it was first legalized in Washington in 2019 (Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont are the other places where you can make yourself into mulch).

“AB 351 will provide an additional option for California residents that is more environmentally-friendly and gives them another choice for burial,” Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the bill, said in a release. “With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere.”

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Human beings cause more than enough trouble while we’re alive, but the practices we’ve developed to handle our bodies after death are also pretty bad for the environment. Burying a dead body takes about three gallons of embalming liquid per corpse—stuff like formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol—and about 5.3 million gallons total gets buried with bodies each year. Meanwhile, cremation creates more than 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of carbon dioxide from the burning process of just one body, and the burning itself uses up the energy equivalent of two tanks of gasoline. In the U.S., cremation creates roughly 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

It’s a no-brainer, then, to think of greener alternatives. The most common process for human composting—and the one laid out in the new California law—is called natural organic reduction, which involves leaving the body in a container with some wood chips and other organic matter for about a month to let bacteria do its work. The resulting mulch (yep, it’s human body mulch) is then allowed to cure for a few more weeks before being turned over to the family. Each body can produce about a cubic yard of soil, or around one pickup truckbeds’ worth. According to Garcia’s release, this process will save about a metric ton of CO2 per body.

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Seattle-based company Recompose, which is mentioned in Garcia’s press release, was the first officially licensed human composting service to open in the U.S. after Washington state legalized the practice. In the release, Recompose’s founder, Katrina Spade, who invented the natural organic reduction process and was a key part of the legalization drive in Washington, said the company hopes to expand its services to California soon.