The state of Washington has signed a bill legalizing human composting, CNN reported on Wednesday. This method of disposing of remains, officially known as “recomposition,” accelerates the natural process of a body converting into soil. For the last hundred thousand years, humans have performed a wide array of death rituals.
According to CNN, State Senator Jamie Pedersen sponsored the bill calling for the legalization of recomposition. “It’s about time we […] allow some technology to be applied to this universal experience,” Pedersen said. “We think that people should have the freedom to determine for themselves how they’d like their body to be disposed of.” While this process, which the article describes as covering the body in natural materials like straw or wood chips to catalyze microbial decomposition, may sound extreme or unpleasant, humans have performed a wide array of practices dealing with death since the dawn of civilization.
Human Remains – Early Death Practices
Today, the most common practices of disposing of human remains are burial and cremation. We perform these rituals not merely for the practical purposes of corpse disposal, but also to gain some closure and to commemorate the transition of a loved one from life to death. But when and why did these practices start?
“We have been ritually burying our dead from our earliest days on Earth, and the ‘we’ in this sentence includes not only Homo sapiens but our neanderthal relatives, whose burial sites have been found in northern Iraq, Israel, and France,” Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said. “The earliest burial sites of Homo sapiens date back over 100,000 years. There is evidence that these burials were intentional and that they were ritualized and religious—the graves not only contain human bodies, but also grave goods such as tools, animal bones, and flowers that sometimes adorned the skeletons.”
Dr. Berkson said that burial has long been seen in Abrahamic religions as a way to return the human body to the dust from which God created it. The idea of God creating man from dust was popularized in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Dr. Berkson also explained how, beginning in the 17th century, the hair of the dead was fashioned into jewelry that would be worn by the bereaved in an act of remembrance and tribute to the departed.
Why We Perform Death Rituals
Whether burying in earth, cremating, burying at sea, or performing other ceremonies involving the disposal of the recently deceased, nearly all cultures of humanity have made a significant occasion of saying goodbye to the dead. But why?
Like birth, coming of age, and marriage, death is a rite of passage. “The recognition of death is generally a more complicated and gradual process than the others,” Dr. Berkson said. “A person’s death is typically acknowledged through a multistep ritual process that conceptually moves the person from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead, however that is conceived. At the same time, the bereaved make their own transition, as they come to terms with their loss and accept the cutting of certain ties; rituals aid in this process as well.”
Different cultures emphasize the facets of death in varying ways, depending on each culture’s focus. “For instance, cultures in which the persistence of the soul or spirit in the afterlife is a central belief emphasize incorporation of the deceased into the realm of the afterlife as the rituals’ main purpose,” Dr. Berkson said. One example is the Egyptian process of mummification, which placed a great weight on sending the dead pharaohs to the afterlife with items they believed the dead would need, including pets. “In cultures without such a belief, the death rituals focus on establishing the separation of the deceased from the realm of the living and the need for loved ones to cut ties with the dead,” Dr. Berkson said.
The composting of human remains certainly seems to fall into the latter category. Washington’s bill legalizing recomposition goes into effect in May 2020.
Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.