The Great Continuity of Nature

The Great Continuity of Nature May 15, 2019

The Washington state legislature has passed a law to allow the composting of human bodies. It works the same way as composting food or garden scraps: the deceased is placed on a bed of wood chips and straw, encouraging natural bacterial decomposition. The heat of decay kills any pathogens and breaks down the body, including the bones. After a few weeks, nothing remains but fertile soil.

A company called Recompose, which lobbied for the bill, touts it as an eco-friendly way to dispose of the dead: less pollution and land use than traditional burial, less carbon emissions and energy than cremation. Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose, says the idea arose from her non-religious philosophy:

Spade, who isn’t religious, created the Urban Death Project out of a desire to have an ideology guiding her death ceremony. “Growing up in rural New Hampshire, nature was the closest thing we had to spirituality,” she told me. “We weren’t religious, we’ve never gone to church, and yet we don’t not believe in something bigger than ourselves.” But she doesn’t think that the Urban Death Project has to conflict with other ideologies. “If you’re an enlightened person, you recognize your connection to every other human being. It’s beautiful to be able to celebrate, recognize, and encourage this idea that we’re part of this larger ecosystem. It gives me comfort.” (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t mind being composted after I die. I have no desire for my descendants to treat my body as if it were a sacred relic. The funeral industry’s push for traditional burial, with the elaborate casket and underground vault and toxic embalming chemicals and all the unnecessary cosmetic procedures, strikes me as an effort to deny the finality of death, to preserve our sense of apartness from nature.

By contrast, I find human composting and other kinds of green burial to be more honest. It’s an affirmation that we’re part of the natural world. It allows the atoms that once were us to rejoin the Democritean dance, resuming their place in the great continuity of nature.

I’d be happy to have my remains nourish a tree. In time, those atoms of my body would become an ecosystem: the worms that aerate the soil beneath the tree’s roots, the birds that eat those worms and nest in the tree’s canopy, the leaves and flowers and seeds that drop from the tree’s branches, the animals that eat those seeds and rest in the tree’s shade, and so on, spreading out in wider and wider circles.

The growing demand for green burial is a sign that religion’s grip is loosening. For centuries, the beliefs and rituals around death were the exclusive domain of religion, but secular alternatives are forcing their way in. As I’ve noted, the Catholic church has always opposed cremation. They grudgingly gave in when it became clear that huge numbers of Catholics were going to do it anyway, but they continue to insist that the ashes should be buried in a funeral plot, not scattered or kept at home.

And as you’d expect, their apologists have hit the roof at the idea of composting bodies:

With human composting, this madcap exercise has now been turned inside out, demonstrating the ancient truth that the worship of false gods — in this case, Gaia, or the Earth — is a sure prescription for lethal incongruity.

…If human beings have no special dignity within creation, then we have no special responsibility for creation. By declaring us proto-fertilizer, the human composters implicitly deny our innate and distinctive spiritual qualities — our ability to reason and to choose, to love, to sacrifice, to act altruistically and to rise above self-indulgence and violence.

Leave aside, for the moment, the laughably illogical idea that encouraging natural decomposition is a denial of human dignity (what do they think happens to bodies buried the traditional way?), or that it equates to “worshipping Gaia” (so is a Catholic burial rite worshipping Hades, lord of the underworld?).

This claim partakes of the apologist fallacy that if our bodies aren’t made of something unique or special, something that stands above the rest of nature, then we ourselves can’t be unique or special either. This is like saying that if you can’t live in a brick, you can’t live in a house made of bricks. I wrote about this fallacy in “Life of Wonder“:

Only by ignoring the grand sweep of all these rare and exceptional traits, ignoring all the unique and special abilities we possess, and insisting that a thing can be no more valuable than its least valuable component can theists make the claim that atheism devalues human beings in this way. In a fundamental sense, we are indeed made up of the same stuff as the rest of the cosmos. How does this detract from the undeniably extraordinary nature of who and what we are? Why should it be degrading to view ourselves as made up of molecules, when one could equally well take the view that molecules must be amazing things indeed if they have the capability to produce beings such as us?

* * *

Since I’ve written about Rachel Held Evans and her efforts to reform Christianity, I have a sad coda to report.

Last month, she was admitted to the hospital with the flu. When she had a severe allergic reaction to medication, her doctors placed her in an induced coma, but her condition worsened and led to severe brain swelling. Many of her followers prayed for God to heal her, but their attempt to suspend natural law was unsuccessful, and she died on May 4.

This news hit me harder than I was expecting, considering I didn’t know her personally. Part of it is that she died at 37, which is my age. She left behind a husband and two very young children, and as a parent myself, I can imagine the shattering sorrow of that loss.

Most of all, it’s unfair that someone like her should die so young. Whatever disagreement I had with her beliefs, she was a good and sincere person who was trying to move Christianity in a better direction. It’s a cruel irony that fate should strike down one of the rare evangelical progressives, while many yet live who are older and have spent their lives glorying in ignorance, selfishness and bigotry. But the universe doesn’t owe us fairness.

Evans’ death is a jolting reminder that none of us know how much time we have. Everyone hopes to live a long and full life, but that isn’t a promise. Whatever purpose you have for your life, whatever you aspire to do that’s valuable or worthwhile, whatever love or goodness you hope to send into the lives of others – do it today. There may not be another chance later.

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