Compost Me! The Ultimate Ecological Burial: Humusation
When people die, they should be able to dispose of their corpses in a way that nourishes the planet. For now, it's still illegal in most places around the world.
PARIS — Last week, an American company confirmed they would be opening the first "humusation" facility on Seattle. This charming technique is a state-of-the-art alternative to incineration and cremation. It involves placing the remains, wrapped in a simple shroud, in a plant bed made of pruning wood and covered, quite poetically, with a mixture of straw and dead leaves.
The result is that in one year, the body is transformed into fertile compost, and could, from there, be used to nourish trees (that retain a little bit of the person) and thus usher the deceased back into the cycle of life. Personally, I'm enchanted by the idea of becoming a sheet of paper.
The root word for human, "homo," comes from the Latin "humus," meaning the "earth." In other words, why not go back? Humusation is to be legalized in the state of Washington next May and may soon be approved by Colorado as well, the same states, incidentally, that pioneered cannabis legalization.
In most countries, however, it remains prohibited, and that, of course, includes France. Let me take a moment, therefore, to say that it's high time we liberalize death.
Let us start with the obvious, as stated in our Declaration of Human Rights: We should be free to do anything that does not harm others. Except when it comes to the body — the object of so many moral and religious prescriptions — we're not at all at liberty to do as we choose. In the name of "human dignity," a concept as philosophically vague as it is legally uncompromising, the legislation prohibits all sorts of practices, no matter how harmless they may be.
Humusation makes it possible to contribute to the general balance of the natural environment.
In the case of humusation, classical arguments against reification emerge. But how would we stay more "subject" by rotting away inside a box or by flying up in smoke? And why, if we do not believe in the resurrection, could we not dispose of a corpse as we see fit?
Paradoxically, humusation would already be legal if the practice corresponded to a religious tradition, all in the name of the fight against discrimination. Will freethinkers be mistreated until death?
Let's move onto the positive arguments. Supporters of humusation stress the environmental aspect. Burying cadavers, they note, pollutes the groundwater, especially nowadays, with all the drug residues and endocrine disrupters we leave behind. Yes, it seems that our modern corpses, stuffed with preservatives, are worse and worse at decomposing.
Truth be told, this ultimate act of recycling, as honorable as it may be, is pretty negligible from an environmental perspective. In view of the scale of the energy crisis, such symbolic contributions cannot replace necessary public policy. I'm more sensitive to ecological considerations in a broader context, and humusation, I'd say, makes it possible to integrate into the ecosystem and to contribute to the general balance of the natural environment.
Won't cemeteries be more cheerful when they look like English gardens?
In the epilogue of his novel Let My Joy Remain, Jean Giono describes the putrefaction of Bobi, an acrobat philosopher struck by lightning out in the wilderness. "Bobi opens up in many spots. The insects enter him and begin to work," he writes. "Bobi is, in that moment, science. He expands to the dimension of the universe. Bobi's fluids water the roots of savory, and thyme and the last living remains of a piece of plucked broom. Already the rich juices rise from the small stems… the piece of root is revived. In the spring, it will pierce the earth, and give life to the beginning of a stem, hard and green."
Isn't the idea of dying more acceptable when it implies a circular permanence of generation and corruption rather than a linear eternity of delights (or torments)? Is it better to be covered with a cold gravestone, or to be transformed into a "hard and green stem"? Won't cemeteries be more cheerful when they look like English gardens?
By beginning to bury their dead some 100,000 years ago, while still nomads, Homo Sapiens ushered in the era of society long before they had any beliefs. Anthropology teaches us of both the importance of burial to civilization and the diversity of forms they can take.
The ethnologist Louis-Vincent Thomas, the founder of thanatology, defined our relationship to death as an irresoluble opposition between fleeting individuality and an immortal species. Perhaps in that sense, humusation — by connecting one's remains to the world of the living, without denying the virtues of memory — could help reconcile us with ourselves.
*Gaspard Koenig is a French philosopher, essayist and president of the think tank Génération Libre.