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EXPLAINER: What is natural composting? Environmental advocates say it reduces death’s carbon footprint

  • / Updated:
  • Edwin Viera 

New York is the sixth state to approve legislation for what’s known as natural composting.

Natural composting is when, after death, a body is put into a vessel with materials that will help it compost faster.

Though it’s still relatively new, the process is being seen as one way to reduce death’s carbon footprint. Caitlyn Hauke, past president of the Green Burial Council, described how natural composting is more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial.

“You’re not doing any sort of embalming of the body,” said Hauke. “It’s much like a ‘green burial.’ The body is going straight into the process, sort of unadulterated. So, there’s also no casket involved, so you’re not putting different materials that don’t belong in the ground, into the ground.”

She said the difference between natural composting and a “green” burial is that the burial doesn’t involve anything that would delay decomposition.

One challenge to this is finding a cemetery that allows for natural burials, as some municipalities may not allow it. Hauke said she feels activism for these options will be what gets laws to change and generate more enthusiasm at the local level.

With environmentally friendly alternatives for burials gaining popularity, alternatives to cremation are being sought out as well.

One alternative is known as alkaline hydrolysis. It is similar to a traditional cremation, but uses lye and water instead of fire.

Though some see cremation as better for the environment than a burial, Hauke explained why that isn’t the case.

“With cremation, you’re utilizing fossil fuels to run the crematorium,” said Hauke. “In the process of cremation, you end up releasing mercury and greenhouse gases into the air, and you’re producing a lot of CO2 emissions as well.”

Experts find one cremation can create over 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Using that figure, they estimate cremations in the U.S. account for 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions every year.