I’ll compost your corpse
- 2 Apr 07, 10:35 AM
“I’ll compost your corpse” has to be one of the most unusual offers I’ve ever received. It didn’t come from some bloke whose pint I’d just knocked over but from Britain’s king of compost himself, John Cossham so I had to take it seriously.
John wrote in to Newsnight after our first Ethical Man item to encourage me to explore the virtues of composting. He boasted of how a book called the Humanure Handbook had changed his life. He said it had inspired him to build himself a composting toilet in the back garden of his York semi and since then he’s hasn’t looked back – composting has become his life.
We first met John last summer but now, as I reach the twilight of my ethical life, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about John and his unusual offer.
When Newsnight’s editor first challenged me to try and reduce my family’s environmental impact by living as “Ethical Man” the deal was clear: the project would only last a year. The year was up in March so the producer, Sara, and I have been trying to come up with a suitably environmentally friendly way of disposing of Ethical Man.
There was never much chance I’d be able to go out in a blaze of glory. Cremation - the funerary favourite for more than two thirds of Britons - is, as I suspected, far too carbon intensive for a right-thinking ethical man.
Consider the facts: the ovens in crematoria operate at temperatures of up to 1100C and burn for 75 minutes per corpse. In the process they consume around 285 kilowatt-hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity. That’s pretty much the same amount of energy as an average person would use at home in a month.
And CO2 isn’t the only pollution issue. A sixth of all UK mercury emissions are from the fillings that go up in smoke along with the corpses of our loved ones. That mercury contaminates the air, the water, the soil and thereby all of us and exposure to mercury has been linked with all sorts of unpleasant illnesses including birth defects, kidney disease and multiple sclerosis.
Then there’s the issue of dioxins. According to some estimates as much as 11% of UK atmospheric dioxin resulting from combustion comes from crematoria and dioxins are linked with all sorts of ailments including cancer.
So cremation is out but surely there’s nothing unethical about burial? I’d always thought that a cadaver in a coffin rotting naturally away at the bottom of a grave would have a minimal impact on the environment and not only that, all the nutrients in the body would be returned to the cycle of nature.
Not so. For a start 89% of the coffins sold in this country aren’t solid wood. They consist of a wooden veneer pasted onto chipboard and chipboard contains the chemical formaldehyde which leaches into the soil as the coffin breaks down. Not only that. Those lovely shiny handles are very rarely made of brass these days, more likely than not they’ll be plastic replicas, again raising pollution issues.
But it is John Cossham who – if you’ll excuse the metaphor – puts the final nail in the coffin for burial. “Some rots,” he explains, “are more ethical than others.” And since John is the founder of the composting pressure group York Rotters he really should know.
Apparently, the problem with the way a corpse decomposes at the bottom of a grave is that there isn’t enough oxygen to get a good aerobic compost going. The main by-products of aerobic decomposition include carbon dioxide and water meanwhile anaerobic decomposition produces methane - 23 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas as CO2.
Even the smell suggests it is bad, says John. The tell-tale sign of anaerobic decomposition is a foul smell while a good compost, he assures me, shouldn’t smell at all unpleasant.
As if that weren’t enough John argues that when a corpse is buried the nutrients in the body aren’t returned to the cycle of nature but remain trapped six feet under, away from the reach of most plants. Compost your corpse, meanwhile, and you can apply the nutrients straight to your roses.
There is a problem though. The law only permits burial or cremation at the moment though that may be set to change. According to a survey by the Daily Mail a number of local authorities are considering authorising a radical new technique from Sweden.
It is called promession and involves freeze drying corpses in liquid nitrogen and then breaking them down into powder. The water that makes up two thirds of the bulk of a human being evaporates away and any toxic parts like those mercury fillings can be separated out. The resulting powder will apparently compost away into a rich soil in just a couple of months.
So what does the composting king think? He questions the environmental credentials of the process, wondering how much energy it takes to make the liquid nitrogen. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he asks, “just to get in a good butcher to cut the body into small and easily “compostable” pieces?”
It may be the ethical solution but I’m not sure that butchering the bodies of our loved ones is ever going to catch on. Is it something you would consider in the interests of the environment or would you prefer to stick with the traditional methods of disposal – even if they aren’t as environmentally friendly?