“This Dust Was Once the Man,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman in 1871. Whitman was eulogizing President Abraham Lincoln, who had died just six years before. In his poem, he acknowledged what we all know: that when a loved one dies, his or her mortal remains rapidly decompose. In Genesis 3:19, God addresses Adam, saying, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
But when a loved one dies, how should you dispose of the body? Most Americans choose between burial in a coffin or cremation. If the body is cremated, a family can choose between scattering the ashes and burial in an urn. Beginning in 2027, though, California will join Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in offering a third option: In those four states, surviving family members will be able to compost the guy and use the resultant “soil” to fertilize a shade tree.
On Sunday, September 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 351, the controversial plan to permit the composting of human remains. Democrat Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the legislation, argued that human composting is more economical and more eco-friendly than traditional burial methods. It will, she added, help to reduce overcrowding in cemeteries.
Here’s how it works: When the bill takes effect in 2027, Californians will be able to choose natural organic reduction, a method in which human remains are placed in a reusable steel vessel and covered with wood chips, alfalfa and other biodegradable materials. In that microbe- and bacteria-enriched environment, the body will naturally decompose over a 30- to 45-day period, breaking down until it’s reduced to a nutrient-dense soil. That “soil” will then be returned to the family, who may choose to sprinkle it in their backyard garden or donate it to a conservation site.
The Catholic bishops of California voiced strong opposition to Assembly Bill 351 when it was first introduced. Kathy Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, called human composting an “unfortunate spiritual, emotional, and psychological distancing from the deceased.”
“We believe,” explained California Catholic Conference spokesperson Steve Pehanich, “that ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than a reverence” for the remains. Pehanich added that even cremated remains must “… remain in a communal place befitting of the dignity inherent in the human body and its connection to the immortal soul.”
Catholic teaching about burial and cremation
Jesus’ Resurrection confirmed the hope deep in the human heart that there is an eternal future for both our body and our soul. And it is Jesus’ unique claim about the destiny of our human bodies that underlies the Church’s teachings regarding burial and cremation. Christ, through his Resurrection, showed us our own future; and the Church requires that the deceased body be treated with reverence and great dignity.
It’s important to note the Catholic Church’s historic and continued respect for the remains of the deceased. Granted, the Church’s official position has changed: Before 1963, the Church insisted that Catholics follow only the manner of Christ’s burial by either entombing or burying the body. Even today, the Church acknowledges that “cremation does not hold the same value” as this traditional way of allowing the body to go gently back into the earth (Order of Christian Funerals).
But the revised Code of Canon Law published in 1983 helps Catholics to understand that the 1963 lifting of the prohibition forbidding Catholics to cremate their deceased loved one’s remains was never intended as an endorsement:
The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Church teaching. (Canon 1176)
The Church now allows for cremation of the body, providing that family members making that decision are not doing so because they fear the body is lost forever and has no future together in Christ with the immortal soul.
Cremation quickly reduces the body to about four to ten pounds of bone fragments. The Church requires that these remains of the body be placed in a respectful vessel and treated in the exact same way that a family would treat a body in a casket.
Since the human body has an eternal destiny in any form, the Church requires that cremated remains of a body be buried or entombed immediately after the funeral in the same timely manner as a body.
And there are rules to be followed:
• Cremated remains of a loved one are not to be scattered, kept at home or divided into other vessels among family members, just as it is clear that these practices would desecrate a body in a casket.
• The Church allows for burial at sea, providing that the cremated remains of the body are buried in a heavy container and not scattered.
All of these teachings on the treatment of cremated remains of the body correspond with the Christian’s foundational belief in eternal life – both body and soul – in Jesus Christ among the Communion of Saints.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (997) explains:
In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Nowhere in its teaching – in the Catechism, in the Code of Canon Law, or in any official pronouncement – does the Catholic Church even imagine the disposal methods proposed in the current era. Human composting and other methods of natural organic reduction such as aquamation (water cremation) are, therefore, expressly prohibited.
Related at CWR:
• “Death, hope, and resurrection: A conversation with Dr. Scott Hahn” (May 27, 2020) by Paul Senz
• “Wisconsin Senate approves ‘water cremation’ for human use” (May 11, 2021). Joseph M. Hanneman
• “Dioceses offer free interment to encourage proper burial of cremated bodies” (November 1, 2020) by Joseph M. Hanneman
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