Overview:

New York legalizes composting of human remains, and the Catholic church sputters in futility.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In welcome news for the new year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation to allow “natural organic reduction“—in other words, composting—of human remains. New York becomes the sixth state to permit this method, following in the footsteps of Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and California.

It works just like other kinds of composting. The body of the deceased person is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and placed on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw in a reusable vessel. Microbes do their work of natural decomposition. In 30 to 60 days, the body breaks down completely. The result is about a cubic yard of clean, fertile soil that can be spread on a garden or scattered in wild places.

The eco-friendliness of this method is its major selling point. Cremating a body emits up to a ton of carbon dioxide, while conventional burial consumes huge amounts of space and materials and potentially pollutes groundwater and soil. Composting has none of these drawbacks. According to Recompose, a pioneer in the industry, it requires only one-eighth the energy of other methods.

A sign of wisdom and humility

Personally, I think this is a great idea. I hope to live a long and healthy life, and I have no plans to die soon. But we all rejoin the earth eventually.

When I die, I don’t wish to stand in nature’s way. I don’t want my body treated like a sacred relic, preserved from entropy at all costs. I don’t want it to be embalmed with toxic chemicals or buried in a steel casket in a concrete vault. I don’t object to cremation, but this is even better.

For a secular person, this is a fitting end that respects our place in the cosmos. Our bodies and minds are complex patterns of atoms. Over our lifetimes, individual atoms migrate in and out, but the pattern remains.

The church can’t abide anything which implies that we’re made of the same stuff as the rest of the cosmos.

When a person dies, their unique pattern ceases to exist. The body dissolves. The atoms depart. They rejoin the Democritean dance, merging into the great cycles of nature. The atoms that were once part of that person spread out into the earth, the water, the air. They’re taken up by other living things: bacteria, worms, insects, grass, trees, birds, mammals, and in time, other humans. Eventually, they become intermingled with everyone and everything.

This happens no matter what we choose to do with the body of a deceased person. However, composting and other natural methods signal respect and acceptance, rather than foolishly seeking to deny the reality of death out of fear or religious fantasy. It’s a sign of wisdom and humility, proof that we don’t consider ourselves apart from nature or above it.

Made of the same stuff

New York’s law passed both the Assembly and Senate in Summer 2022 by overwhelming margins. Despite this show of support, Gov. Hochul took no action on it for half a year, finally signing it into law on New Year’s Eve.

It’s possible she was concerned about a backlash, but it seems to have been an unnecessary precaution. I can’t find any record of anyone objecting to the bill, or even discussing it much—with one exception.

There was one religious group that lobbied against this. New York’s Catholic bishops called for human composting to remain illegal, and ineffectively urged Gov. Hochul to veto the bill:

Like many faith traditions, the Catholic Church’s reverence for the sacredness of the human body and its dignity arises out of concern for both the body’s natural and supernatural properties. It is therefore essential that the body of a deceased person be treated with reverence and respect. A process whereby human remains are composted and scattered “in a designated scattering garden or area in a cemetery” (bill language) fails to sufficiently respect the dignity due the deceased.

While not everyone shares the same beliefs with regard to the reverent and respectful treatment of human remains, we believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.

The hypocrisy of this is bright and glaring. They acknowledge that “not everyone shares the same beliefs” about death and the treatment of human remains—but go on to argue that only their beliefs should be permitted! They believe that Catholic doctrine about what people should and shouldn’t do with their bodies should be law for everyone, not a matter of individual conscience.

The dismissive reference to “vegetable trimmings and eggshells” shows what really motivates the church’s opposition to composting. The Lucretian view that humans are part of nature, and return to it when we die—that’s something they deny.

They do believe that we’re different and special, that we stand apart. They can’t abide anything which implies that we’re made of the same stuff as the rest of the cosmos. They believe it’s “undignified” to acknowledge this basic fact of physical reality.

The church should have no say in what I do with my body, in life or in death.

(For the same reason, the Catholic church is officially opposed to cremation. However, in the 1980s, they grudgingly changed their doctrine to allow it as long as it’s not chosen for “reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching”.)

I’m sure that, if pressed, the church’s apologists would acknowledge that a body in a casket will reach the same end as one that’s composted or cremated. However, in practice, they act as if they’re still laboring under the anti-scientific superstition that a body interred in the earth will remain intact until God miraculously resurrects it.

Whatever show of tolerance it puts on in public, at its core, the Catholic church is a theocratic medieval institution. Just as with abortion, contraception, marriage, divorce and euthanasia, it wants to force everyone—even people who aren’t Catholic—to obey the decrees of the bishops. They’ve been losing those battles, and humanity is better for it. The church should have no say in what I do with my body, in life or in death.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...