“This dust was once the man” wrote the poet Walt Whitman in 1871. Whitman was eulogizing President Abraham Lincoln, who had died six years earlier. In his poem, he acknowledged what we all know: when a loved one dies, their mortal remains quickly decay. In Genesis 3:19, God addresses Adam saying, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
But when a loved one dies, how do you dispose of the body? Most Americans choose between burial in a coffin or cremation. If the body is cremated, a family can choose between scattering the ashes and interment in an urn. From 2027, however, California will join Colorado, Oregon, and Washington offer a third option: In those four states, surviving family members will be able to compost the guy and use the resulting “soil” to fertilize a shade tree.
On Sunday, September 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 351, the controversial plan to allow the composting of human remains. Democratic Congresswoman Cristina Garcia, who sponsored the legislation, argued that human composting is more economical and environmentally friendly than traditional burial methods. This will help, she added, to reduce overcrowding in cemeteries.
Here’s how it works: When the bill takes effect in 2027, Californians will be able to choose natural organic reduction, a method in which human remains are placed in a reusable steel container and lined with wood shavings, alfalfa and other biodegradable materials. In this environment enriched with microbes and bacteria, the body will naturally decay over a period of 30-45 days, breaking down until it is reduced to nutrient-rich soil. This “land” will then be returned to the family, who can choose to sprinkle it in their garden or donate it to a conservation site.
California’s Catholic bishops expressed strong opposition to Assembly Bill 351 when it was first introduced. Kathy Domingo, executive director of the Catholic Conference of California, called human composting an “unfortunate spiritual, emotional and psychological distancing from the deceased.”
“We believe,” Catholic Conference of California spokesman Steve Pehanich explained, “that ‘transforming’ the remains would create emotional distance rather than reverence” for the remains. Pehanich added that even cremated remains must “…remain in a commonplace worthy of the inherent dignity of the human body and its connection to the immortal soul.”
Catholic teaching on burial and cremation
The resurrection of Jesus confirmed the hope deep in the human heart that there is an eternal future for our body and soul. And it is Jesus’ unique affirmation of the destiny of our human bodies that underlies the Church’s teachings regarding burial and cremation. Christ, by his resurrection, showed us our own future; and the Church requires that the body of the deceased be treated with reverence and great dignity.
It is important to note the historic and ongoing respect of the Catholic Church for the remains of the deceased. Certainly, the official position of the Church has changed: before 1963, the Church insisted that Catholics only follow the way of burying Christ by burying or burying the body. Even today, the Church recognizes that “cremation does not have the same value” as this traditional way of letting the body return gently to the earth (Order of Christian funerals).
But the revised version Code of Canon Law published in 1983 helps Catholics understand that the 1963 lifting of the ban on Catholics cremating the remains of their deceased loved ones was never meant as an endorsement:
The Church strongly recommends observing the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead; it does not however prohibit cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons contrary to the teaching of the Church. (Canon 1176)
The Church now allows cremation of the body, provided the family members making this decision do not do so because they fear the body will be lost forever and have no future together in Christ with The Immortal Soul.
Cremation quickly reduces the body to approximately four to ten pounds of bone fragments. The Church requires that these body remains be placed in a respectful container and treated exactly the same way a family would treat a body in a casket.
Since the human body has an eternal fate in any form, the Church requires that the cremated remains of a body be interred or buried immediately after the funeral within the same time frame as a body.
And there are rules to follow:
• The cremated remains of a loved one should not be scattered, kept at home, or distributed in other containers among family members, just as these practices would clearly desecrate a body in a casket.
• The Church permits burial at sea, provided the cremated remains of the body are buried in a heavy container and not scattered.
All of these teachings on the treatment of the cremated remains of the body correspond to the Christian’s fundamental belief in eternal life – both body and soul – in Jesus Christ among the Communion of Saints.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (997) explains:
In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes out to meet God, awaiting its reunion with his glorified body. God, in his omnipotence, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Nowhere in his teaching – in the Catechismin the Code of Canon Law, or in any official statement – does the Catholic Church even imagine the methods of disposal proposed in the present day. Human composting and other natural organic reduction methods such as aquamation (incineration of water) are therefore expressly prohibited.
Related to the CWR:
• “Death, Hope, and Resurrection: A Conversation with Dr. Scott Hahn” (May 27, 2020) by Paul Senz
• “Wisconsin Senate approves ‘water cremation’ for human use” (May 11, 2021). Joseph M. Hanneman
• “The dioceses offer free burial to encourage the proper burial of cremated bodies” (November 1, 2020) by Joseph M. Hanneman
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