Natural organic reduction, otherwise known as human composting, will be legal in California come 2027, thanks to recent legislation. Funeral homes are starting to weigh their options.
They could offer the composting service either by doing it themselves or contracting it out. Or they could eschew that service entirely.
Mission Hills-based Aftercare Cremation is one company that plans to incorporate human composting into its portfolio of services.
“We’re in favor of giving families another choice outside of the usual choices we have now,” Aftercare’s Jennifer Cooper said, adding that human composting as a service has likely picked up momentum thanks to the rise of ecologically sustainable practices in many California industries.
Human composting will be legal in a little more than four years following the signing of Assembly Bill 351 last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The lead time will allow the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, a division of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, to create regulations for the program. It will also give time for mortuaries, crematoriums, and human-composting providers to create their business models for the change.
Cooper said she is curious about how human composting’s rollout in California will go, and she plans to keep an eye out for how many others adopt the service.
The regulations may well determine the decision for many funeral homes. For example, if regulations only allow licensed funeral homes, and not consumers, to use the services of organic reduction specialists, then many funeral homes may choose to contract out the service to the new providers. But if regulations allow consumers to go directly to the human composting companies, then funeral homes may feel compelled to compete by creating their own composting facilities – assuming regulations allow that.
The cost is another factor.
Aftercare currently offers simple cremations without a service for a base price of $895 and goes up from there.
But the average cost of a cremation plus a funeral service in California is about $5,000, according to online sources. The cost of a funeral with embalming and a casket is about $7,300, but that does not include a burial plot and headstone, which cost thousands more, typically.
Meanwhile, the cost of composting reportedly is in the range of $5,000 to $7,000. But since the process has been legal for only a short time in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Vermont, the pricing may fluctuate until a market equilibrium is attained.
Of course, once the price settles out, if funeral homes determine there is too little profit in composting to offset the additional costs of providing it, they may decide not to offer it.
Though unsure of what the California human composting market eventually will look like, Cooper said the funeral industry is resistant to progress.
“I think that the funeral industry is one of the slowest industries to embrace change,” Cooper said. “But I think that you have to (embrace change) or you stay stagnant. Like any other business, if you don’t adapt to the change, I don’t think you’re going to stay relevant.”
Seattle-based Recompose, a funeral home specializing in human composting, was founded in 2017; the process was legalized in Washington in 2020. Katrina Spade, founder and chief executive of the company, said that in her experience, death-care businesses have largely contracted out to companies such as hers to provide human composting.
“I think as consumers demand more ecologically-focused death-care options, funeral homes all over the place are going to want to offer those,” Spade said. “Whether it’s partnering with a company like Recompose to get their clients to us or whether it’s licensing the (human composting) technology from a company like Recompose — (funeral homes) are investigating those kinds of options.”
Spade’s company plans to open a facility in California when the law goes into effect in 2027.
There are multiple variables that California death-care businesses will need to take into account when human composting becomes legal, according to Spade. She noted that human composting is a significantly different process from burial and cremation.
Recompose has been composting human bodies nearly two years and was the first facility in the country to do so. Its process involves placing the body in a metal cylinder along with some organic material such as alfalfa and straw. Over 30 days, the barrel regularly gets infusions of oxygen and is occasionally turned. The natural decomposition process raises the temperature in the vessel to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and breaks down the remains, including bones, into soil. The remains then are left to dry for a couple of weeks.
The process creates a surprising amount of material – about a cubic yard, or enough to fill the bed of a pickup truck. At Recompose, some families have taken a small amount for a urn and donated the rest for reforestation purposes.
At Recompose, Spade said, since operators tend to bodies for about a month and a half, the process creates higher costs and staffing requirements. The base cost of the process is $7,000. Contrastingly, cremation takes a few hours to complete, usually.
Providing the staff to operate and oversee such technology could prove a challenge for the death care industry. According to Cooper, at Aftercare, the industry has dealt with staff shortages that were around before Covid-19 and then were further aggravated by the pandemic.
“Just being able to recruit and train professional and licensed staff that you need for this industry is still really challenging,” Cooper said. She added that her business could not grow its staff fast enough to keep up with the increase in deaths that occurred during the pandemic’s worst days.
“Most funeral homes, it’s not going to make a whole lot of sense for them to have one or two of those vessels. It would make sense to have several,” Spade said. “That can get quite expensive and so it may make more sense for funeral homes to contract out. It depends on the location, the ambitions and the growth strategy that funeral homes have.”
Cooper said her company does not plan to contract the human-composting services to another business if they can help it.
“We’re family owned, so we don’t really outsource anything,” she said. “I would imagine that we would try to figure that out on our own instead of outsourcing it, because when you outsource services, you lose the quality that really drives the mission.”
Caitlyn Hauke, a board member of the Green Burial Council, a Placerville-based nonprofit that advocates for ecologically sensitive funerals, said she is not yet sure if human composting will have a significant impact on the profits of some businesses in the death-care industry.
Hauke said that two factors will play large roles in the increased adoption of human composting — availability and cost.
“More states will need to pass laws allowing for human composting, more providers of the service will have to come on board, and while it is not the most expensive option, there is a cost associated with the service that may not be feasible for everyone,” Hauke said.
Shawn LaValleur-Adame, the funeral director of DIY Dying, a Long Beach customized before and after death-care service, added that there are other options at play. She said that the decision of what to do with loved ones or where to place their remains after composting may also be a challenge for people considering the option.
“The concept for this is difficult in itself to explain to people, having only been available for humans for a year or so,” LaValleur-Adame said. “For it to already be making this kind of headway in legislation is already fantastic. I think if we talk more about greener options as a whole, it might gain even more headway.”