The Grave Evil of “Recomposting”

There is a movement to promote "recomposting" humans after death, but this process inherently devalues the human person by actively choosing to break down the difference between a person and a thing.

As Catholics reflect during the month of the Holy Souls on the meaning of death, they might also focus on new paths in the “American way of death.” California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation September 18 making “recomposting” an approved method for disposing of human corpses in the Golden State. The bill was sponsored by Southern California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia. The bill was opposed by the California Catholic Conference, though one would be hard-pressed to find its statement or the reasons for its opposition on its website.

“Recomposting,” currently legal in Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, involves storing a dead body in a heated container with biodegradable materials, including wood chips and alfalfa. After about 45 days, the resultant fluid and mass can be used as “nutrient-dense soil…[that] can then be returned to families or donated to conservation land,” proclaims a Los Angeles Times writer. 

Garcia’s office crowed that every human body that is recomposted would save one metric ton of carbon; if all Californians opted for recomposting over cremation, “the state would see 2.5 million fewer metric tons of carbon within a decade; that’s the equivalent of energy output required to power 225,000 homes for a year.”

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Why should we oppose human “recomposting”? Because it inherently devalues the human person by human beings actively choosing to break down the difference between a person and a thing.

The human body, even after death, is sacramental. Every human person—Christian or not—is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).  Interestingly, the Bible itself connects the “image and likeness of God” with God’s creation of sexual differentiation, clearly a bodily-grounded distinction. The Bible treats man as qualitatively distinct from the rest of creation. Whereas God simply “said” whatever else He wanted to create, the decision to create man is clearly framed as a deliberated decision.  

Created in God’s image and likeness, man is further distinguished from the rest of creation by explicit divine statement: man is given “dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Man is further explicitly given “every green plant for food” (1:30).

Mankind’s Judeo-Christian Genesis heritage absolutely distinguishes man from the rest of the created world. Man, as Vatican II puts it (and Pope St. John Paul II was constantly wont to repeat), is “the only creature God wanted for himself” [Gaudium et spes, no. 24); that is, he wanted us for his own sake, without a utilitarian or ulterior motive. Man’s relationship is to God; his relationship to God also means he gives voice, as God’s steward, to the rest of creation put in his service and subordinate to him.  

Although he is a physical creature, made “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), he was, and even after death remains, dust in which had dwelt the breath of God.

For these reasons, “recomposting” fundamentally disregards this distinctiveness of man. It reduces him to soil. It in fact concludes that his dead body has no inherent value. It is merely a problem: a putrefying piece of meat which must in some way be disposed of to prevent disease. 

This inherently valueless biological mass can further negatively affect the environment by taking up soil space (burial) or contributing a further post-mortem carbon footprint through incineration (cremation). The one useful value that can be extracted from this rotting mass is to repurpose it as “nutrient-dense soil” through technological processing. And please note that it is technological processing: it is a humanly-driven process in a controlled environment intended to accelerate decomposition.  

The Judeo-Christian perspective sees man as soil raised up to a greater, personalized value. The “recomposting” perspective sees man as raised up by being turned back into soil. Judaism and Christianity still see value in what had been a man; recomposting sees value in what will be topsoil.

Assemblywoman Garcia and votaries of “recomposting” cast the issue in terms of “expanding choice” for Californians. And a certain kind of “liberal democracy” perspective will claim society must be agnostic about such value questions. 

I dissent: society cannot be “agnostic” about such questions without practically answering them negatively. You cannot say “everybody can choose” what the value of a human body means without implicitly saying there is no value there except the one you assign it. It’s the same shell game we played for 50 years with Roe v. Wade: states had an “interest” in “potential life,” but that “potential life” never managed to trump a concrete “choice” against it.

Apart from stripping the human body of meaning, “recomposting” also drives another nail in the coffin of our Judeo-Christian Genesis heritage. That heritage is already under assault (e.g., the idea that “man and woman” are just “sexual” attributes that have metastasized into a discriminatory “gender binary” that undermines mentally constructed “human identities”; or that “being fruitful and multiplying,” far from being God’s first blessing on the newly-created man and woman, was a pre-lapsarian curse inflicted by nature and nature’s God from which humans were only saved circa 1960 by John Rock and his blessed “Pill”). 

Regarding human bodies as so much raw matter for potting soil is the next step in that escape from Genesis flight. “Image and likeness” and “circle of life” cannot coexist.

Let’s ask some practical questions. Does society really have no interest in the dignity of human remains so that a corpse disposal method is designed to produce a product, (i.e., “nutrient-rich soil”)? Even cremation (which I blame for opening the door to this denigration of the body, but that’s another article) does not aim at repurposing the body. 

Cremation’s advocates, overdosing on too many Hollywood films, may scatter ashes on beaches, fields, rivers, and the Grand Canyon, but even that action somehow pretends to express giving “rest” to the deceased. “Recomposting” imagines the deceased needs no rest: he’s just aiming to be tomorrow’s salad.

And what, in fact, are we saying when we turn Uncle Joe into top soil? Years ago, people rebelled against eating crops produced from genetically-modified seed, to the point where various jurisdictions either banned the practice or at least demanded clear labeling. But Assemblywoman Garcia extols the value of “recomposting” as generating “nutrient-rich soil” that, if Uncle Joe’s relatives don’t want to use in the flower bed, can be “donated to conservation land.” 

I am not being flip: this is a parody of Communion—“take and eat” Uncle Joe because he’s now part of “the circle of life.” Proponents of euthanasia insist we must be able to kill people (or at least turn off their food and fluids) because it offends “human dignity” when they become “vegetables.” Many of these same folks now apparently think that becoming a vegetable is now the true Omega Point of human existence.  

Now, I don’t deny that, over the eons, what was once human has returned to our soil. But note: over the eons, by a natural process. “Recomposting” collapses those eons into a month-and-a-half through a deliberate processing method whose intended product is that soil. There is still a distinction between what happens naturally and what man on his own initiative brings about.

I have not even entered into the distinctively Christian reasons why “recomposting” would be objectionable, and I recognize that there are some Catholics—including, apparently, bishops—who may not agree. All I can say is that they are wrong, blinded by their ecological fantasies to ignore the warped philosophical and theological anthropologies they presuppose. 

Christians should find “recomposting” objectionable because it turns the sacramental of the Christian body—which had been a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) that was incorporated into Christ’s Death through Baptism, signed with His Spirit in Confirmation, and which ate the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—into a product, a thing.

Let me add that, while “recomposting” advocates (and their more radical allies pushing “alkaline hydrolysis”) now talk about “choice,” when will the “choice” be compulsion? In the name of public health, Gavin Newsom imposed on Californians some of the most stringent Covid restrictions of any state. In the name of the “climate catastrophe,” when will “choice” shift to “choice with the government’s finger on the scale” to “required”? 

After all, if we have to power all those electric cars California’s grid currently can’t support, and with impending ecological Armageddon, then do we have the “luxury” of diverting all that energy that can be powering 225,000 homes (and relieving the grid) to cremation? Covid governmental overreach should suggest such slippery slopes are not just fantasy. 

[Photo Credit: Recompose]

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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