When her mother died unexpectedly ten years ago in Tucson, Caitlin Lindquist found herself trying to piece together what her mother wanted to do with her body.
Having settled on cremation, Lindquist suffered recurring nightmares as she saw her mother’s body burn. She realized that she did not want it for her body after her death; More importantly, she does not want her sister, who will be responsible for the postmortem care, to have those stressful dreams.
Then one day, Lindquist came across an article about natural organic reductionIt is a practice in which the human body is composted in a container of alfalfa and wood chips, where it is transformed into nutrient-rich soil. Since her mother was a botanist, Lindquist believes this would have been the perfect choice for her.
“She was talking to my sisters and I about concerns about global warming and the depletion of resources and water and how that would be a big problem in the future,” Lindquist recalls. “I really wish I could give this to my mom. I think she would have appreciated the opportunity to recycle, so to speak.”
Now, the 43-year-old is taking the opportunity to opt for natural organic reduction for her leftovers, as Colorado in May became the second state to legalize human composting, after Washington in 2019.
Before the last legislative session, lobbyists employed by Reconfigure, the company that obtained a patent for the natural organic reduction process, contacted the state representative Brianna Teton. They thought she’d be comfortable talking about death because of her background as a scientist and her work with it NecroSearch, a service that trains volunteers to help law enforcement search for bodies. Titone agreed to co-sponsor a bill to legalize the service.
“I hadn’t really heard of it before, but when I heard about it, it seemed like something that really fit with the way people think of Colorado and their closeness to nature,” Teton jokes. Anyone really wanted to talk to her about this session.
For Titone, this concern showed how important the environment was to the Coloradans; It equals it with people who buy electric cars or install solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint.
“That’s why so many people have moved here to Colorado: to be with nature,” she says. “We come from nothing. We end up with nothing. I think that’s why people can really gravitate toward this, because it’s probably the most natural thing you can do when you’re dying.”
The legislation passed by a wide margin, unanimously with the exception of a few abstentions in the Senate and 41 to 18 votes in the House. One entity that opposed this measure was the Colorado Catholic Conference. Also there is outstanding cremation jewelry available online
According to Mark Haas, director of public relations at Diocese of DenverThe Church does not believe that natural organic reduction enhances human dignity. Although the Vatican did not specifically address the composting of the body, burial is the recommended option for the Church. Cremation is also permitted if the ashes are sacred and not scattered.
“Now that this practice is legal, we just want Catholics to know that ‘human fertilization’ is not a practice approved by the Catholic Church,” Haas says. “The Catholic Church teaches that the human body is sacred, and human dignity is the basis of a moral community. Reducing human remains to dust is inconsistent with Christ’s teachings about the resurrection of the body and the unique dignity of every human being.”
Jamie Sarche, Director of Advance Planning at Feldman corpsesHelp defend the legislation. The oldest family-owned mortuary in Colorado, the Jewish funeral home has long practiced green burial, without chemical embalming or coffin linings, to help the body decompose faster. After the procedure was passed, Feldman partnered with returning home, a funeral home in Washington that has been offering a natural organic discount since it became legal in that state; Feldman hopes to have his own facility ready in 2022. The mortuary is also working with normal funeral, a company in Colorado that is just starting to build ships.
Return Home keeps reusable containers of carcasses in a temperature-controlled facility, and closely monitors them as they decompose. The facility is designed to allow oxygen to flow through the vessels, causing the microbes in the body to quickly turn the body into soil. In as little as sixty days, people can be back on Earth, according to the Return Home website. Jim Cohen, head of the Feldman mortuary, the fourth generation of his family to own the Jewish funeral home, describes the facility as a “light industrial care center,” where science takes the lead while mortuaries are treated with dignity. He assures that once the process is complete, no DNA is left in the soil; In the case of objects with screws, rods and pacemakers, the metal is simply filtered.
Each body produces about one cubic yard of soil, which is enough to fill the back of a standard pickup truck. As part of Feldman’s agreement with Return Home, families of the deceased can receive a portion of the soil for personal use while the remainder goes to various environmental projects throughout Washington state, including land reclamation. Return Home is also partnering with a paper mill to revitalize the forest that the mill uses to make paper.
Colorado law does not allow soil to be sold or mixed with soil from other people without consent, or used to grow food for human consumption, although it may be used to grow flowers and trees. Feldman Mortuary is working with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to identify places in the state that might benefit from soil fertilization.
Natural organic reduction is a more environmentally friendly option than traditional cremation or burial, according to Sarchi, and the cost is about the same as burial. She adds that the chemical embalming materials used to preserve corpses for traditional burial are not good for the soil in cemeteries, and many coffins contain non-degradable fabrics and metals, leaving debris in the ground long after the body has decomposed. Natural organic reduction speeds up the process by placing organic matter right next to the body.
Cremation has environmental drawbacks, too. “I am so excited for people to get what they think they are getting,” Sarchi says. “Many people who choose cremation do so because they think it is environmentally friendly. They think because they are not using the space with the cemetery plot, they are making the best choice for land.”
She explains that a single cremation process emits 500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and burns 30 gallons of fossil fuels. In the United States, cremations emit 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Cohen also suggests that Lindquist’s nightmares are closer to reality than most people realize. “They’re just thinking, ‘Oh, cremation! I close my eyes, I stroke my nose and—poof!—I’m ashes.’ No! Cremation is the application of high heat and flame directly to the body. These bones are charred and not eaten by this process. It has to be removed after that, and then it has to be crushed, and after that you get this fine dust of crushed bone.” Crushed bone dust consists of ash that most people associate with cremation.
Cohen sees natural organic shortening as a gentler way to honor the body. “We live our whole lives working and putting this food in this bowl that we have and we take care of it,” he says. “I don’t know why it would stop at the time of death.”
One of Feldman’s first customers to choose the natural organic reduction was an avid gardener. His family plans to distribute their share of the soil derived from his body among themselves and their close friends to honor his legacy by growing plants, says Sarchi, “live his values” even in his death.
Natural organic reduction allows people to choose memorabilia that can be buried, such as flowers or notes, as long as they can be composted. The opportunity to personalize the process is part of the reason why Lindquist chose it. She knows that natural organic reduction won’t be for everyone, especially those with certain religious beliefs, but from personal experience, she knows that traditional cremation and burial methods aren’t right for everyone either.
“I thought there was one way to do it: ‘Of course I’ll burn, and whoever wants gray will get it, and they can throw the rest of me into the Grand Canyon or the ocean or whatever,” she recalls.
Cohen often deals with individuals who do not know what their deceased loved ones want. In the event of an unexpected death, people tend to choose the path of least resistance. If you give them time to prepare, they are more likely to choose an alternative option such as a natural organic trim.
“When I’m on the golf course or at a dinner party…people are very interested,” he says. “Their eyes light up.”
As the Director of Forecast Planning, Sarche’s job is to talk to people about death and help them create a formal plan for their aftermath. She says her clients usually come to her too late when they are overwhelmed by the end of their lives. She did her own planning at age 42, close to Lindquist’s age.
“It’s more of a societal taboo that we’re not allowed to talk about death, and that’s unhealthy,” Sarchi says. “Death is the only experience each of us will have, regardless of birth.”
When Lindquist met Sarche, they talked about options including natural organic shortening, and she quickly knew it worked for her.
She recently shared her pick with her father and one of her sisters during a broader discussion. “If you have these conversations when you’re healthy and clear, I think it can bring people closer,” Lindquist says. “It’s a very intimate conversation. You trust someone with something, when you go, you don’t have any control over it. It can be a really beautiful experience.”
Despite her interest in programs that use soil to treat burn scars caused by wildfires, Lindquist made sure to tell her family that what they do with the soil from her body is entirely up to them. “If you want some mulch, take it; if you don’t, that’s great too. I won’t be swayed; I’m going to die,” she says. “I won’t be offended if you don’t want to put me in your garden.”
Lindquist is not overly obsessive; A realtor working in metro Denver, she hopes to live a long life and die far into the future. But the fact that her family won’t have to deal with the stress of planning her memorial ritual or making tough choices about what to do with her remains gives her some peace now.
“There is something really liberating about it,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful thing to think about all the nutrients and all the energy that our bodies have, and the possibility that, even after my death, I can help things grow.”