Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support    
Human Composting: Navigating the “Ick Factor”

Human Composting: Navigating the “Ick Factor”


How Seth Viddal, co-founder The Natural Funeral, is normalizing human composting as a safe and useful burial option.

I asked the co-owner of The Natural Funeral Seth Viddal, a stout man with a shaved head and a righteous beard — and a dead-ringer for my mental image of Tom Bombadil — if he had heard of the term “Sky Burial.”  He laughed, “Yes! It’s reserved for special deaths, for dignitaries.  But, it’s where the body is placed on top of a mountain to attract vultures to come to digest the body and distribute it back to the earth.”

From a certain distance, the Tibetan ritual of Sky Burial reads as a decorative rug covering the ‘Ick factor’ of the actual practice. However, when viewed from a perspective within the culture, the rite leads to divination by allowing the spirit to become one with heaven and re-enter the cycle of reincarnation once a vulture has finished digesting the remains.

The ‘Ick Factor,’ as Viddal calls it, has plagued the idea of human composting as a valid and safe method of disposing of one’s dead since before even he was aware of the possibility.  In 2020,  Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, and Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver, proposed legislation for human composting with bill HB1060. This method of composting had been used for livestock and was proven to be sustainable; however, it met opposition from both Christian and Jewish leadership before it was completely derailed by the COVID outbreak. The bill didn’t make it through session.

Later in 2021, a prospective client actually brought the idea of human composting to Viddal who, up until that point, hadn’t known composting a human body would be an option for burial. Viddal  immediately used the resources at his disposal and lobbied the Colorado Energy and Environmental sub-committee to provide the service. A new bill, SB21-006, was also making its way through the legislature. The bill allowed for the use of containers to accelerate the process of decomposition. On September 7, 2021, human composting became a legal form of burial with two specific caveats: first, the soil made from human composting cannot be sold; second, whatever is grown within said soil cannot be used for human consumption.  This made Colorado the second state to allow for such a service, the first being Washington State in 2018.

During this process, Viddal began working on the vessel to contain the body that he would later dub the “chrysalis.” The chrysalis is constructed with dimensions roughly the same as a normal casket.  The appearance and shape of its construction, however, is more time-capsule than coffin as the wooden box the body is kept within is bookended with wooden wheels.  The wheels provide for easy transportation, allowing it to be rolled in and out of the warehouse wherein it is kept.  Further, inside the casket, the body is laid upon a bed of alfalfa and wood chips.  Additionally, grieving families are allowed to place mementos of their lost loved one within the chrysalis as long as they are things that will properly degrade during the process (wine, grounds from their favorite coffee, etc.).  Within about six to nine months the family will be welcome to claim the soil that remains once the process is finished.

The Chrysalis, photo provided by The Natural Funeral

The first service of human composting on September 22, 2021 sent a knock that could be felt throughout the nation. The Natural Funeral has performed seventy-five human composting funerals as of this article, and they’ve been sought by people from outside the state for their service.  Considering the demand, they are still shockingly the only funeral home in Colorado to perform this service.

Though it is highly likely that number will grow, Viddal was very clear that every service he performs is special.  “I never want to be callous,” Viddal remarked when asked about how he mentally prepares to begin a process that will inevitably turn a human into soil.  “You want to feel grounded,” he said with his eyes closed, perhaps visualizing taking his first steps, shoulders braced for carrying the weight. An Atlas-like undertaking, the word ‘service’ brings with it all planetary heft of a grieving family— a story has ended, a space created where it wasn’t wanted, and lives must now learn to move with a different rhythm.

The opposition to human composting still remains. The Catholic Church has said that it still does not support the idea of human composting citing safety concerns, and the Jewish leaders have had mixed reactions as some see it occupying the same space as cremation while others oppose death having a tangible benefit.

Although Viddal admits that human composting is a net good for the environment, he never influences the choice on the grieving family.  Dealing with the remains of a loved one is never easy. Composting a human may give some reservations, however, with Oregon legalizing the practice in the summer of 2021, and four more states also legalizing the practice, it shows that the winds are changing direction. Further, since human composting has been proven to be safe and good for the environment — and as long as those choices made for the deceased were made with care — navigating the ick becomes easier.  Just as Viddal stated whether  its Tibetan rituals involving vulture poop or humans becoming soil, “It’s all beautiful.”

Leave a Reply