The Process of Human Body Composting

body composting, also known as natural organic reduction (NOR) or human recomposition, is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation. This process uses natural decomposition to safely and gently convert human remains into soil.

Human body composting aims to return us to the earth in a meaningful, sustainable way. The basic process involves placing the body into a reusable vessel along with plant material like woodchips, alfalfa, and straw. The vessel maintains ideal conditions for natural decomposition.

Over about 30-45 days, microbes and essential bacteria break down the body tissues and plants into a clean, nutrient-rich soil. This soil can then be returned to loved ones or donated to conservation efforts.

Human body composting offers an end-of-life option aligned with green and natural burial principles. It forgoes chemical preservation, scarce land use, and high carbon emissions associated with conventional after-death practices.

The Science Behind Human Body Composting

Human body composting utilizes the natural process of decomposition that occurs when organic matter is exposed to heat, moisture, air, and microbial activity.

Under the right conditions, complex materials like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates can break down into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. What remains is dark, rich humus – the finished compost.

To achieve this process for human remains, the body is placed in an above-ground vessel mingled with natural biodegradable materials high in carbon and nitrogen. The composition of materials provides the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen needed to support microbial life and decomposition.

The vessel is designed to maintain ideal conditions for decomposition. It allows airflow and regulates temperature and moisture levels. With the right conditions, aerobic bacteria, archaea, and fungi thrive and accelerate breakdown of soft tissues and organs.

The Step-by-Step Process

The human body composting process generally involves ten key steps:

  1. Body preparation: The body is washed and dressed in a biodegradable shroud or container. Any hazardous implants like pacemakers are removed.
  2. Placement in vessel: The body is gently placed into a reusable hexagonal steel vessel filled with woodchips, alfalfa, and straw.
  3. Sealing the vessel: The vessel is securely sealed and wheeled into a controlled decomposition bay.
  4. Monitoring and maintenance: Sensors monitor conditions like moisture, temperature, and airflow. Small adjustments are made as needed to maintain ideal levels.
  5. Initial decomposition: Microbes breakdown soft tissues relatively quickly over 2-3 weeks. Liquids safely drain into a closed evaporation system.
  6. Aeration: The material is aerated to support continued breakdown of tougher tissues. Beneficial aerobic microbes thrive.
  7. Second decomposition phase: Over the next 2-3 weeks, remaining tissues decompose fully into basic organic and inorganic compounds.
  8. Production of humus: The material darkens and develops into nutrient-rich humus with a soil-like texture.
  9. Sanitization: The humus undergoes a final 2-week sanitization phase under more heat to ensure safety.
  10. Return of soil: The soil is tested for safety then removed from the vessel. It is now ready to be returned to the family.

The Many Benefits of Human Body Composting

Compared to conventional disposition methods, human body composting offers significant environmental, practical, and emotional benefits:

Sustainability: The process avoids the use of toxic embalming chemicals. It also eliminates carbon emissions from cremation and scarce land use of burial. The resulting soil fosters new plant life rather than destroy it.

Cost savings: With no need for expensive caskets, concrete vaults, embalming, or crematoriums, costs are lowered significantly compared to traditional options.

Adaptability: The process can accommodate bodies of all shapes and sizes. Remains can be fully or partially composted.

Simplicity: Human composting requires little energy input and no unnatural preservation of the body. It aligns with green burial principles.

Emotional impact: For many, the idea of transforming into nourishing soil provides comfort and meaning compared to more sterile options.

Land conservation: Instead of taking up limited land plots, the produced soil gives back to the earth through donations to conservation efforts.

Scalability: Human composting facilities have smaller land footprints than conventional options, allowing for expansion as interest grows.

What Happens to Bones During the Process?

One common question is what happens to the skeleton during human body composting, as bones take much longer to decompose naturally. The process is designed to safely and respectfully handle bone remains.

During the first weeks of soft tissue decomposition, bones are largely untouched and remain intact. Once soft tissues have broken down, the skeleton continues curing within the vessel for an extended period after the soil is removed.

Over time, bones become brittle and gradually disintegrate into mineral-rich fragments through natural biodegradation. Any remaining bone fragments are then pulverized into a powder and incorporated into the finished soil.

The process is gradual out of respect for bones as visible remnants of identity. Bones are allowed to naturally break down rather than being mechanically crushed prematurely.

Current Legality and Accessibility

As an emerging practice, the legal status of human body composting varies across different states and legislation continues to evolve. As of early 2023:

  • Legal: Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, New York
  • Pending legislation: Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts

The growing number of states legalizing human body composting demonstrates rising acceptance. However, legislative battles persist in much of the country among funeral industry objections.

Currently, most facilities exist on the West Coast. Leading providers like Recompose and Return Home have helped make human composting accessible in Washington, Colorado, and California. But ongoing advocacy is needed to expand options nationwide.

How Human Composting Compares to Cremation

Cremation is currently the most common end-of-life option, chosen by over 50% of Americans. But cremation has downsides – it emits high carbon emissions, destroys all DNA, and leaves no ability to donate tissues.

Here’s how human body composting compares to cremation:

Carbon footprint: Cremation releases over 400kg of carbon per body burned. Human composting produces only 1/8 the emissions.

Process length: Cremation takes about 2-3 hours at extreme temperatures. Composting takes 30-45 days at mild temperatures.

Remains: Cremation reduces the body to ash stored in an urn. Composting produces soil that gives back to nature.

Tissue donation: Cremation incinerates all tissues, making donation impossible. Composting maintains donation feasibility for the first days.

Costs: Average costs are similar, but composting avoids the need for crematoriums and urns.

Acceptance: Cremation is widely accepted across all regions. Composting legality varies by state.

Both options avoid the land usage and chemical preservation of conventional burial. Overall, human composting aims to offer an eco-conscious alternative for those seeking a gentler, more natural return to the earth.

Looking Ahead to the Future

While still in its early days, the human body composting movement has rapidly gained public interest and legislative momentum. More facilities are opening, costs are becoming competitive with cremation, and environmental ethics continue steering end-of-life preferences.

If trends towards eco-friendly green burial continue as expected, human body composting could become a mainstream and widely available option over the coming decade.

Key next steps will involve broadening legalization, making pricing more affordable, increasing facility capacity, and growing public awareness. With time and advocacy, the transformative practice of human body composting may become a significant pillar of the death care industry.


Human body composting offers an innovative approach to after-death care – one focused on sustainability, natural return to the earth, and regeneration of new life. While availability remains limited in early days, interest and advocacy continue rising across the death care sector and general public.

As an alternative aligned with emerging eco-conscious values, human composting provides a promising option for gentle natural transition back into the cycles of nature. With broader legalization and accessibility, this regenerative practice could provide comfort, meaning, and ecological responsibility at the end of life for many more.