AUSTIN (KXAN) — Marj Sippel and her husband of over 40 years, Harry, always planned to cremate their bodies once they died. That was until they saw an article about an emerging method that allows someone to turn their body into organic material after they pass away.
“It felt like the most reasonable and healthy way to return our bodies to the soil,” Sippel said. “It was a more natural process than anything I have been exposed to before. We both made the decision that this was what we wanted to do.”
Harry died last year. Marj said the post-mortem arrangements were peaceful and helped her to heal from the loss of her husband.
“I cared for him as he died. And this was the final piece of it, helping to care for his body as he transitions back to soil,” she said.
This process is called human composting – or natural organic reduction. It’s a form of post-mortem body disposition growing in popularity in recent years. Washington became the first state to permit the method, followed soon after by five other states – California, Colorado, New York, Oregon and Vermont, according to CNBC reporting.
It is currently illegal in Texas, but people living in the state, like Sippel, can still choose natural organic reduction by going through companies such as Green Cremation Texas. The company’s founder, Eric Neuhaus, said they offer the service to all customers, but “the only caveat, of course, is we have to put your loved one on a scheduled flight out to Seattle.” So far, Neuhaus said, a few dozen Texans have chosen natural organic composition with his company.
How does it work?
When a person opts for this method, once they have died, their body will be placed into a large stainless steel container along with woodchips, alfalfa and straw. Some families may include flowers and other organic materials to go in with their loved one’s body. Several weeks later, all that is left is soil, bones and potentially metal implants. The bones are broken down further and added to the soil, while non-organic material is removed, according to Green Cremation Texas.
“You’re left with approximately one cubic yard of soil to use for whatever purpose you’d like,” Neuhaus said. “A lot of families use it for their gardens. I’ve heard of many stories where friends or family would each get a small portion of soil and use it in their own gardens for their loved one who loved gardening or the outdoors.”
Advocates of the method say human composting is much more environmentally friendly than in-ground burials and cremation. Further, Neuhaus said that human composting offers people the ability to avoid taking up land for centuries to come.
“When you’re buried in a cemetery…your plot is there forever,” Neuhaus said. “I think a lot of people, especially now that cities are growing… they don’t like that notion.”
Neuhaus helped State Sen. Nathan Johnson draft SB105. This bill, if passed, would allow Texans to choose water cremation for post-mortem body disposition. Texas is one of 20 states in the U.S. where this method is still illegal.
Currently, there is nothing in SB105 related to natural organic reduction, but Neuhaus said that could change.
“We would love to add in [natural organic reduction] if we feel like there’s that public support for this bill, public championing of their freedoms and their liberties when it comes to their rights for their body when they die,” Neuhaus said. “We would love to be able to add in [natural organic reduction] in this session.”
Some in the Catholic Church oppose natural organic reduction. The Catholic bishops of California came out against the California bill that legalized human composting when their state legislature was still deciding, according to reporting by SF Gate.
Church officials there said that human composting doesn’t treat the body with dignity and respect after death, according to the reporting.
Further, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement in March saying it did not support the process either.
“At the end of the human composting process, the body has completely decomposed along with accompanying plant matter to yield a single mass of compost, with nothing distinguishably left of the body to be laid to rest in a sacred place,” the organization wrote in the statement. “The Church considers burial to be ‘the most appropriate way of manifesting reverence for the body of the deceased,’ as it ‘clearly expresses our faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.'”
“Whether or not you choose this process, for me and for my organization, is completely irrespective as to why we are proponents of it,” Neuhaus said. “We want people to have the option. If you don’t want to choose this option – fantastic. If you do – great.”
Marj said she hasn’t done anything with Harry’s remains yet. After she passes, Marj wants her and Harry’s soil to be given to their children.
“So now [they’ll] take Harry’s soil and my soil and they can choose what to do with it.”
Sippel said the natural organic reduction ceremony was healing but said the process would have been much easier had it been legal in the state.
“We came from the soil, why shouldn’t we go back to the soil? And why should we have to have a wooden box and why should we have to lie on the ground for a long period of time when this is such a healthier way for our environment? This is us giving back our final gesture,” Sippel said.