Composting Aunt Tilly?

My take on the new practice of composting human remains and spreading them around the garden as if they’re nothing more than leaves, dead chipmunks and tree branches. I told a friend recently that as a trained clinical psychologist and past practitioner of psychotherapy, and as an ordained clergy with pastoral experience hearing confessions and offering absolution to the penitent, nothing surprises me any more about human beings and their behavior. Nothing!

I now can eat those words, however. Last week, my husband David and I were staying in an old, historic inn in Lewisburg, West Virginia, spending a few delightful days in that quaint town with a friend. On Sunday morning, the inn provided copies of the local paper, The Gazette-Mail. And on page 4A, David spied a headline that caught his eye: “Washington Passes Bill Allowing Composting of Human Bodies.” (Reprinted from The Washington Post; link here.) I couldn’t believe my ears when he read the short piece to me. My jaw dropped at that news article which began like this: “It may soon be legal for the dead to push daisies, or any other flower, in backyard gardens across Washington State. {The bill,} if signed by the governor, allows human bodies to be composted – and used for mulch.” (See lead photo.)

A Seattle-based company called Recompose plans to offer a service called “natural organic reduction” … that uses microbes to transform the departed – skin, bones and all … [The founder of Recompose said,] ”It is actually the same process happening on the forest floor as leaf litter, chipmunks and tree branches decompose and turn into topsoil. … Families would be allowed to take the compost home, or, because it’s a lot of soil, donate it to conservation groups in the Puget Sound region.
Now unless you’ve wandered into this blog by accident, most of my regular readers are aware that I’m an ordained Episcopal clergy person and thus can probably assume that I hold certain definite beliefs about the sacredness of life from beginning to end. So I don’t want to turn this piece into a theological treatise on the meaning of being human, being created in the image of God and so on. (If you are interested in that overall topic, you might want to take a look at my last trilogy of books published – particularly the second one, Flourishing Life.)

If you follow such things as funeral practices, you probably also are aware that the option of cremation was debated by Christians over the years but has been accepted by most church denominations, including the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. But most, if not all churches, do call for reverent attention to be given to the person’s remains, making a space for mourners to engage in some ritual and final farewell to the deceased. In the Episcopal tradition, the funeral or memorial liturgy ends with a final blessing and the words, “Yet even at the grave, we make our song. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Sadness and joy at the closure of a life in this vale of tears, with the hope of final resurrection in the end time.

Thomas Lynch is one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the proper handling of remains and the importance of solemn yet joy-filled ritual. Lynch is an essayist and poet – and retired funeral director in a family of “dismal trade” practitioners in Milford, Michigan. The first book of Lynch’s that I read was titled Bodies in Motion and at Rest. (See second photo below.) I bought that book after reading a review of it by Barbara Brown Taylor in the November 2000 issue of the The Christian Century. She writes “a true incarnationalist, Lynch understands that bodies are God’s chief way of getting to us. The revelations that come to us through birth, love, illness, sex, hunger, longing and death are the ones that raise the eternal questions for us. Who are we? Why are we here? Why must we die? What’s next?” (pp. 1216-1217) (In fact, Lynch’s latest book, Whence and Wither: On Lives and Living is now lying on my breakfast table.) Taylor quotes Lynch observing this “quiet truth of the matter”:

The arrangement of flowers and homages, casseroles and sympathies; the arrangement of images and idioms, words on a page – it is all the same – an effort of meaning and metaphor, an exercise in symbolic and ritualized speech, the heightened acoustics of language raised against what is reckoned unspeakable – faith and heartbreak, desire and pain, love and grief, the joyous and sorrowful mysteries by which we keep track of our lives and times. (Found in Taylor’s review, p. 1217.)
Reading this old review again prompted me to put down Lynch’s latest book and find Bodies in Motion and at Rest on my shelf. It is indeed a beautiful and eloquent collection of essays about life and death and the observance of both. In order to give you a taste of the book itself, let me quote Lynch as he writes the following:

A funeral is not a great investment; it is a sad moment in a family’s history. It is not a hedge against inflation; it is a rite of passage. It is not a bargain; it is an effort to make sense of our mortality. It has less to do with actuarial profits and more to do with actual losses. It is not an exercise in salesmanship, it is an exercise in humanity. Both the death-care consumers and the death-care conglomerates ignore such distinctions at their peril. (p. 156)

A funeral is more than the sum of its parts. It has sacred, secular, spiritual, emotional, social and practical duties. A death in the family is not a retail event [or a techno-patent opportunity]. It is an existential [event]” (p. 184)
Thus to me, the idea of composting the body of someone you love and spreading the mulch around in your garden or local conservation group with the option of a “funeral ceremony” is a sad commentary on our spiritual impoverishment and lack of metaphorical imagination in our techno-saturated society.

That’s my view of the matter in this Easter season.