Specter of ‘Soylent Green’ raised in legislative debate over human composting, which proponents say is an eco-friendly way to deal with remains

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Daniel Hennessy’s mother didn’t want to be buried when she died, because she didn’t want her body to take up any land.

He wasn’t a fan of cremation, but given his mother’s request, he felt that was the only option when she died a few years ago.

Hennessey began reading up on a process called natural organic reduction, which allows human remains to be converted into soil. It’s also known as “human composting.”

He came to find it both honorable and eco-friendly.

“I think that the human composting option appears to be the best for the environment. It makes sense. It’s a slow process. So it feels a bit more dignified than being burned at 1,200 degrees,” said Hennessy, a native of England who lives in Chicago.

At Hennessy’s urging, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, tried early last year to push through legislation that would codify natural organic reduction as an alternative to handling human remains.

That effort failed, but Cassidy reintroduced the bill and, after a debate that included references to the 1973 dystopian thriller “Soylent Green,” the Illinois House last month narrowly approved the measure, which is now before the Senate.

If Cassidy’s legislation gets enough votes in that chamber and is signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois would become the seventh state in the country to legalize the process. Cassidy has also indicated that she wishes to have her remains go through human composting.

“Many of the providers have found really beautiful ways for families to memorialize their loved ones by building conservation spaces where very often they’re taking land that is otherwise unusable, restoring it to health and creating a really lovely beautiful place where people can go and meditate and be with their loved ones without the carbon footprint involved in a traditional burial,” Cassidy said on the House floor moments before the bill passed with only three votes to spare, 63-38.

State Rep. Steven Reick, a Republican from Woodstock, voiced strong opposition to the proposal, and brought the abortion rights positions of Cassidy and other Democrats into the debate.

“This is coming, of course, from people to whom an embryo is nothing but a mass of cells that can be disposed of when inconvenient and now we see that at the end of life, we’re nothing more than food for worms,” Reick said.

Reick likened the potential effects of the legislation to the fictional scenario in “Soylent Green,” which depicts an environmentally degraded Earth of the future where the masses are left to eat the title substance, the provenance of which is bellowed out by Charlton Heston as the movie ends.

“I don’t know if anybody remembers back to the old movie “Soylent Green,” Reick said. “I think we’re going to probably reach that point in this debate. Because as we all know, ‘Soylent Green is people.’”

One of Reick’s GOP colleagues, freshman state Rep. Travis Weaver of Edwards, ended up voting for the bill and rebutted Reick’s argument about abortion.

“I am as pro-life as anybody, from womb to tomb. However, for this bill, I believe that once we’ve reached the tomb, I do believe that it’s an opportunity of liberty and freedom to what you choose to do with your own body,” Weaver said.

Katrina Spade runs a full-service funeral home and human composting facility in Seattle. She said she understands that it can take some time for the public to wrap their heads around the idea of human composting.

“To bring up this, this very new idea that forces us to think about our mortality can be quite shocking,” she said. “It’s really important that proponents of natural organic reduction are being careful to couch the process in terms that allow for people to absorb the idea.”

Since 2020, she said, her business, called Recompose, has composted more than 250 bodies. She said more than 1,300 other people have also signed up for the process when it’s their time.

To break down nonembalmed human remains, they are placed in a container, or vessel, atop a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw, with similar materials placed over the remains, to enable microbial activity, she said. For about two months the microbial activity breaks down the remains into soil, which is given to the families.

“You can receive back, after they’ve been transformed, this soil that’s actually nutrient rich, actually can go on to grow new life,” Spade said. “And for many people, we hear that’s very comforting to know that after they’ve died ... they will live on in a way.”

She said her business also has a partnership with an environmental nonprofit that accepts extra soil that families of the deceased don’t want to keep. That soil is then used for projects to regenerate forestry, she said.

Some have religious objections to the method. Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the legislation “clearly lacks traditional dignity” reserved for the dead.

“Turning human persons into compost for the purposes of fertilization that would occur with vegetable trimmings, eggshells, etc., it degrades the human person and we think it dishonors a life that was lived by that person. And it affects the memory of that person and all those who knew that individual,” Gilligan said. “Every human being is not just something, but someone.”

Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced its position on new methods and technologies for how to treat human remains. Through its committee on doctrine, the conference said that burial is the “preferred method” but that cremation is acceptable as long as the ashes are “laid to rest in a sacred place.”

The bishops conference took issue with human composting as well as another method of handling human remains called alkaline hydrolysis, a process that involves dissolving a body in dozens of gallons of liquid that could be discarded into wastewater systems. In its statement, the bishops conference said both methods are “not sufficiently respectful of the human body.”

“There is nothing distinguishably left of the body to be placed in a casket or an urn and laid to rest in a sacred place where Christian faithful can visit for prayer and remembrance,” the statement said of human composting.

Spade said the process can include a memorial service or celebration of life for the deceased and that human composting is “one of the most respectful ways of caring for a body.”

“It is a way of returning us gently back to the earth from which we came,” she said.

Dan Brady, a former longtime Republican state representative who is a licensed funeral director in Bloomington, questioned the logistics of the human composting process, such as how to transport the compost.

He also questioned how much demand there would be for human composting if it were to be legalized in Illinois, compared with cremations and burials, and how safe the process would be.

“The natural process of decomposition of the body is not a pleasant thing, and you’re looking at holding bodies for upward to over a month as this process would be carried out,” said Brady, who was the McLean County coroner in the 1990s. “What would be done if you have someone with a communicable disease?”

The Illinois comptroller’s office would have to regulate the human composting process in the state if it gets final approval from lawmakers and is signed into law by Pritzker. The office already has rules and regulations set up for alkaline hydrolysis.

Under Cassidy’s legislation, the vessels used for human composting would have to be made of stainless steel and be leakproof. Facilities used for the process must be licensed by the state to perform such work.

Hennessy, who reached out to Cassidy about initiating the legislation, started a change.org petition on human composting in his native England a couple of years ago. The website set a goal for the petition to acquire 2,500 signatures. As of last week, it was about 270 short.

Some of the people who commented on the petition gave varying reasons for their support of human composting. One commenter wrote, in part, “People should become part of the earth instead of just taking up space.”

Another comment said, “I would like an environmentally friendly funeral. Current practices are not sustainable & toxic to the environment.”

Another said, “Composting makes the most sense and is the closest to what would happen naturally.”

“There are so many things to think about if you’re thinking about it from the environmental point of view,” Hennessy said. “If you don’t want your last wish to harm the planet, then there’s not many options out there.”


(Tribune reporter Nara Schoenberg contributed to this story.)