There’s a new option for people in New York trying to figure out what to do with their bodies after they die. Over the weekend, Governor Kathy Hochul signed Assembly Bill A382 into law, which legalizes the process of natural organic reduction—more popularly known as human composting—in New York State.
There are several reasons to choose being composted over alternative end-of-life methods. Burial uses a hefty amount of nasty stuff that’s harmful to the environment. One corpse needs about three gallons of chemicals, including formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol, which can leach into soil and groundwater; around 5.3 million gallons get buried with dead bodies each year. Meanwhile, cremating bodies takes energy and in the U.S. generates about 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year from the burning process.
Natural organic reduction works by curing a human corpse with wood chips in a special container for several weeks, where it breaks down into mulch. Each body produces a cubic yard of soil—about what can fit in a pickup truck—that the family of the deceased can then use in gardens or scatter outdoors. Industry estimates show that the process could save around one metric ton of CO2 per body.
The movement around human composting in the U.S. has picked up steam in recent years. In 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize the process; it was quickly followed by Colorado and Oregon in 2021. New York is the third state, following California and Vermont, to legalize human composting in 2022; Delaware, Hawaii, and Maine have all proposed similar legislation. Bills in New York to legalize the process were proposed in 2020 and 2021 but never got traction to come to a vote; this past year, however, the bill sailed nearly unanimously through the House and Senate.
Human composting in the U.S. has been almost entirely spearheaded by a Seattle-based organization called Recompose, which was the first organization to license human composting in the U.S. and whose founder, Katrina Spade, patented the natural organic reduction process.
“Cremation uses fossil fuels and burial uses a lot of land and has a carbon footprint,” Spade told the AP. “For a lot of folks being turned into soil that can be turned to grow into a garden or tree is pretty impactful.”
Not everyone is on board with this new method. The New York State Catholic Conference, a group that represents Catholic bishops, urged Catholics in November to contact Hochul to oppose the bill.
“Composting is something we as a society associate with a sustainable method of eliminating organic trash that otherwise ends up in landfills,” Dennis Poust, the group’s executive director, said in a statement on the bill’s passage. “But human bodies are not household waste, and the bishops do not believe that the process meets the standard of reverent treatment of our earthly remains.”