How Body Farms and Human Composting Can Help Communities

“Wait, let me get this straight,” my 14-year old said. “Your naked body would just rot on the ground? No thank you!”

This might actually be a teenager’s version of hell on earth, but I wanted my two daughters to learn about more sustainable options for my body while I was healthy and able to plan for my death. We were talking about two choices—donating human remains to a body farm and human composting—which seemed like a scene from CSI or Bones at first glance. But both are better for the climate than flame cremation, which burns fossil fuels, or conventional burial with embalming and a vault, which turns a cemetery into a toxic landfill.I’d explained to my daughter that a body farm is a research facility for the study of human decomposition. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville became the first body farm in the US in 1987, and the second facility is located at Western Carolina University, less than an hour from the small college campus where I teach environmental education. Research on decomposition at this body farm in North Carolina contributed to developing the process of human composting, legal in Washington State, Colorado, and Oregon. Also known as natural organic reduction, human composting transforms bodies into nutrient-rich soil. Donating human remains to a body farm and human composting are two ways to create life from death, engage family and friends, and make a difference in our climate emergency.

More than a decade ago, my parents died in separate but mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both killed by teen drivers. After my mother’s death at 58, my father shared his detailed plans for a green burial, as he wanted a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the land. After his death, I chose cremation in my own directives for its affordability and convenience. The percentage of people in the US making that same choice is expected to increase from its current rate of 50 percent to 80 percent by 2040. But it’s not a “green” decision: Cremation in this country produces 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

When I first documented my final wishes, I wasn’t aware of the diverse and more sustainable alternatives to cremation or conventional burial. The body farm in Western North Carolina was one stop on my yearlong journey to explore human composting, conservation cemeteries, green burial, water cremation, end-of-life doulas, and home funerals. My goal was to revise my final wishes with climate and community in mind.“OK, they’re about 30 minutes away,” Christine Bailey told me after glancing at her phone.

“Would it be OK for me to stay?” I asked.

It took some courage to ask for an invitation from this no-nonsense curator of the forensic anthropology facility and lab at Western Carolina University, which is known officially as the Forensic Osteology Research Station, or Forest. I’d been hoping for the chance to observe a donation to this body farm in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, one of seven such facilities in the US. After texting her supervisor for permission, Professor Bailey, as she’s known to students, nodded to me and then walked down the hall to find the transport service. Within minutes, she rushed back to the lab: “He’s leaking. Put the liners in the cooler!”