Natural burial plot
A natural burial plot at Larkspur Conservation at Taylor Hollow in Nashville, Tennessee. Credit: Contributed /

If we are to believe Ben Franklin’s musings on death and taxes – that they’re the only things in life that are “certain” – then it is equally true that death and taxes are also on the top-five list of topics that provoke intense political passions.

During Ned Lamont’s first term, he pushed to have tolls reinstated on Connecticut’s biggest roads, only to encounter furious opposition from firefighter Patrick Sasser’s “No Tolls” army, which ultimately caused the governor to retreat back to 990 Prospect Avenue with his tail between his legs. Sasser was so successful that he started a second career for himself as a political campaign operative.

On the mortality front, intense feelings have accompanied recent legislation involving dying, including assisted suicide – a subject that arouses emotions and occasional acrimony between pro-life and aid-in-dying advocates. Their positions on this particular issue are understandable, given the obvious moral struggles involved.

More puzzling is the controversy that has arisen over a recent proposal to loosen restrictions on what happens to individuals after they die. A group of lawmakers led by Rep. Amy Morrin-Bello, D-Wethersfield, has proposed an environmentally friendly way to dispose of a dead body instead of a traditional burial. Hers is one of three proposals to legalize the practice.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The proposal has been labeled by some advocates as the “human composting” bill. As a journalist, I’m not great at marketing. That phrase, however, strikes me as terrible messaging. “Human composting” conjures up images of grinding granny’s bones to feed the pumpkin patch. Not a good look – or a very persuasive one, if you ask me. I’ve also heard the more artful phrase, “natural organic reduction,” bandied about.

Others here and elsewhere have dubbed it a variation of the concept of “green burial.” More on that later. This bill would legalize “the placement of unembalmed remains in a vessel with organic matter to speed the decomposition process. Natural and mechanical processes are used as part of a curing process, resulting in a soil, or mulch, of about one cubic yard,” Nicole Paquette, head of legislative affairs for the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, whose group supports the legislation, told the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee last month.

After two to six months, the resulting nutrient-rich soil is extracted from the burial capsule, while the bones are ground up in a cremulator and mixed back into the soil, which is left to dry out. Finally, the material is screened for contaminants and given to family members or other loved ones.

If the bill passes, Connecticut would join Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and California in allowing the practice. Next door to us, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill late last year, making New York the sixth state to legalize this burial alternative.

Allowing the unembalmed remains to stay in the ground indefinitely, if that’s what the family wants and the cemetery or holding facility allows it, is known as “green burial,” which is already legal in Connecticut. It’s aptly named.

According to the Green Burial Council, the traditional U.S. burial industry annually uses 20 million board feet of hardwoods (including rainforest woods), 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel. Caskets and vaults leach iron, copper, lead, zinc, and cobalt into the soil. Meanwhile, the embalming fluid inside corpses contains formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene. This is a huge waste and an obvious environmental hazard.

The other alternative to traditional burial, cremation, is now the most popular death care practice in the U.S. and is the choice of more than half of the dead and their families. But cremating a single body, typically using natural gas as fuel, takes up to three hours of burning and releases almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

That’s the equivalent of driving your car 500 miles. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, there were nearly 3.5 million U.S. deaths in 2021, the last year for which statistics were available. If only half are cremated, that’s a lot of carbon and it’s only going to get worse. The American Funeral Directors Association estimates that by 2040, 80% of us will opt to have our bodies turned into ash.

There are few objections to green burials and cremation, but there has been some passionate opposition – mostly on religious grounds – around human composting. One opponent, weighing in against the proposal before lawmakers, called the procedure an “extreme dehumanization of the final stages of human life” that removed the “sacredness of created human existence, and the hierarchy of humans (with souls) as above all other created beings.”

Another speaker inveighed against the practice: “That this Bill was even raised disgusts me as a Christian … We are made in God’s image, would you throw away God for human compost?” A man writing a letter to the editor of the Republican American newspaper called the bill an “outlandish and totally unacceptable proposal” that reduces “the respectful right to a Christian burial down to a category of ‘composting’ just to satisfy a sick desire of left-wing environmental groups.”

I respect the right of religious people to object to practices that run contrary to their faith. If natural organic reduction offends you as a Christian, then do not engage in it. But don’t tell me or anyone else that we should live our lives according to the tenets of your faith or by your interpretation of it. Those who are interested in alternatives to traditional burial and are concerned about the environment and climate change should have that option if the legislature approves it.

You might not have anything to worry about anyway, at least for the time being. The proposal does not appear to have moved beyond the Jan. 30 public hearing. If the bill doesn’t get out of the public health committee by today, then it dies, so to speak.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.