Society

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.

Composing with decomposing
Composing with decomposing
Gaspard Koenig

-Essay-

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ