Talk about Newsnight

Ethical Man - Justin Rowlatt

Is it legal to compost your loved ones?

  • Justin Rowlatt -
  • 22 Jan 08, 11:52 AM

I bring grave news: a legal dispute compels me to disturb the remains of Ethical Man.

compost_man.jpgRegular Newsnight viewers and readers of this blog will recall that the corpse of Ethical Man was laid to rest by Britain’s King of Compost, John Cossham, in a specially designed compost bin in his suburban garden in York. We judged composting was the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of a human cadaver.

I’d imagined that that would be the end of the story; the memory of Ethical Man would gradually rot away leaving little more than a rich loam. Unfortunately it was not to be. A legal battle rages over our chosen method of disposal... Ethical Man cannot rest in peace.

The claim is that we gave “false information on law”. It is a serious claim and is the subject of a formal complaint to the BBC.

So what is at issue? Well, before Ethical Man lowered himself into his compost grave I said that the only problem was that “it isn’t actually legal to compost human beings”. We felt that we could side-step this because – and this may surprise some readers – I wasn’t actually composted.

The complaint is that this is not an accurate representation of the law. The complainant, who says he is an expert on the law relating to dying and death, says that “there is no law that I know of which proscribes the composting of bodies”.

He asked me to check the true legal position and issue a correction. I have to admit that I failed to do this. I’ll be honest here - after the demise of Ethical Man I wanted to move on. I didn’t want to let his shadow affect the rest of my working life. I moved on to new journalistic pastures (on the One Show) and forgot about the legal complexities of composting corpses.

justin_203x177.jpgSo is it legal? Well, I’ve spoken to the ultimate authority on this subject, the Ministry of Justice and as so often in law it appears there is no clear answer. The problem seems to be that no-one has actually tested the law to find out if it is legal.

Under the Births and Deaths legislation all deaths must be registered and when they are, the registrar issues a certificate for the body to be buried or cremated. The person responsible for the disposal of the body then has to certify to the registrar that the body has been disposed of by burial or cremation.

So what if someone composted the body instead? If the registrar did not receive a certificate of burial or cremation then they might refer the disposal to a local environmental health officer who would then have to decide whether composting was a suitable method of disposal.

Test case needed

The law on burials is not clear whether it would be. The Ministry of Justice says that all the law says is that the body/coffin should be at least three feet below ground level (or no less than two feet in certain circumstances).

There is no requirement for a coffin (which would slow the composting process) but a body would be expected to be covered so as to avoid an offence to public decency.

The Ministry of Justice adds one final coda. We suggested it might be a good idea to chop the body up into little pieces to ensure a rapid and aerobic compost. The Ministry warns that any attempt to dismember the body would have to comply with the Human Tissue Act 2004 and that dismemberment might in itself be regarded as an offence to public decency.

In short then, what is needed is a test case to clear up the law on this important subject. So please help. If you are considering composting your corpse or that of a loved one do please contact us so we can follow the process.

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When living (replicating) matter is finally assembled from dead (molecular) matter - taken from the laboratory shelf - a whole new perspective on "life" (organised death) will opened up, and poor old Rowan Williams will have a lot more on his plate than Chrismas-wrecking. My dad made it plain he wanted his body to depart on the "dust cart" but it was not allowed! Your enquiry is but the "tip of the compost heap". Perhaps you might incorporate where the quest to build life from death now stands? The states of matter might well be expressed: plasma, gas, liquid, solid, living?

'...after the demise of Ethical Man I wanted to move on. I didn’t want to let his shadow affect the rest of my working life...'

Is this just personal, or BBC-endorsed corporate practice after any piece or editorial regarding potentially environmentally sound practices by individuals?

It just rather comes across as a tad 'well, we only got all nanny-eco on you viewers for the programme at the time. That was then. Now there are new ratings to climb.'

So... all back in the 4x4s and off on the international bus... holiday jollies swigging imported water again?

That's the problem one runs into when some messengers undercut the value of the messages they claim to be promoting. Like a Spice doing 'Planet Earth Cool' one week 'for her kids' and hopping a Lear the next.

With luck any future promoters of what 'we' should (or was it always just 'could', a stance I'd favour but seldom how most finger-wagging ecoslots I see tend to come across: 'Ban all plastic bags - except composting ones of course, which only work in vessel and hence are no good in the back garden with Uncle's corpse - and buy a fashion hemp job from my mate's bijou shopette now!!!!')do for 'our' own good may inspect the story chalice they are handed from every angle before they grab the career-enhancing, if limited duration, profile it represents. And fully consider the consequences if not done for all the right reasons.

'Nice, middle class, middle income Yuppie journo dabbled in some cute eco stuff and found it wasn't much fun and cramped a lot of style, not to mention career and social avenues, and so quietly dropped it for the next in line to pick up equally temporarily as he headed to less carbon-friendly pastures'.

Like Mr. Cameron's wind turbine, it may be better to not do it at all than make it seem like a bit of a passing fad.

That is, if Aunty does really think there is a bit of a potentially man-worsened climate change issue it mightn't hurt motivating the public around.

Or is this just more 'do as we say, not necessarily need to do'? to fill the green slots that are still de rigeur for now?

Given that farmers are not allowed to compost diseased animals, I find it a little unlikely that human cadavars can. Have you spoken to DEFRA for their views and/or got a license from the Environment Agency? Millions are hanging on the result of this.

My wishes are well-known to my family. I have made a willow coffin and expect to be buried in it (unless it perishes before I do*) on uor own land. I hope some other compostable material can be included, and some soil and the whole works buried relatively shallow, so that I can return above ground relatively quickly.

* Actually, I hope the coffin (or its successor) is judged to be serviceable at the time, but proves not to be so. I can imagine no better departure than to fall through the bottom while being carried down to the grave site. False friends will wail "how terrible!", while true friends will be unable to stop laughing!

Drinks all round back at the house!

  • 5.
  • At 07:56 PM on 08 Feb 2008,
  • Brian Abbott wrote:

May I remind everyone that the main cause of climate change is man's activities and so as our population increases so will problems grow. May I ask ethical man, how many children have you fathered to satisfy the female biological clock?

  • 6.
  • At 10:49 PM on 08 Feb 2008,
  • John Cossham wrote:

I was the person whom Justin came to to find out about composting, and he wanted his 'Ethical Man' character to be recyled upon his finishing the year's experiment.
I still want to promote the composting of human corpses as an ethical alternative to deep burial or cremation. There is a way which it could be done, a freeze drying and composting method called 'Promession', being developed in Scandinavia. I am not aware that it has been used in the UK or anywhere else yet, however there is a lot of interest, and the Local Authorities which may use it first are Crewe/Nantwich or Corby.
People who want to see how it is developing should look for the Promessa Institute.
John Cossham, York, UK

  • 7.
  • At 12:01 PM on 09 Feb 2008,
  • Paul D wrote:

The answer to this one is simple. If nature takes its course and our bodies are left to their own devices upon our demise, they will simply decompose.

The obvious test - which you are welcome to try with me come the time - is simply to put me out with the rest of the rubbish and see what the council makes of it.

There is a serious side to this though. I am perfectly happy for bits of me to be used for transplantation or research - indeed for any legitimate process. What I object to is paying large sums of money after I am dead to take up unnecessary plots of land or contribute to global warming by having my hydrocarbons converted into greenhouse gasses.

Take what you want and chuck what's left on the compost heap is my philosophy.

  • 8.
  • At 07:49 PM on 09 Feb 2008,
  • michael foote wrote:

The leading UK expert on burial law is John Bradfield he has written books about the subject and the Death Centre always refers to him. For some good information about his work visit

Oh and BTW you CAN legally compost a human cadavar.

He has had 2 EDM's raised in the commons supporting his work signed by over 36 MP's. The following is a copy of the last EDM.

That this House calls upon the Government to take urgent steps to fulfil its promise, made in January 2002, to end the wasteful and destructive bureaucracy which is forcing the collapse of the astonishing achievements of the Alice Barker Trust; agrees that the Trust has been a great strength in this country and is the type of voluntary sector organisation celebrated in the last Queen's Speech; calls upon the Government not to create temporary graves in public cemeteries until the Trust's proposal for a new legal framework for voluntary sector burials is in place for permanent graves in permanent nature reserves, without the need for any expansion of Government bureaucracy, but with ultimate power resting with any Secretary of State; notes that the Trust has demonstrated how public services can be joined-up in imaginative and unexpected ways, that emotional well-being can be protected through empowerment during critical times of bereavement and other potential emotional emergencies, and how standards can be driven up in ways which reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and expenditure on our National Health Service and other services; further notes that the Trust cannot survive without the unparalleled expertise on relevant law of John Bradfield, its full-time honourary adviser and researcher since 1990; and urges the Government to put in place a new law as a matter or urgency to prevent him accepting unrelated paid work in this country or abroad, as that would deprive the nation of a free public service which no-one else is capable of providing

  • 9.
  • At 08:05 PM on 20 Feb 2008,
  • John Bradfiled wrote:

Thanks to Mike Foote, for flagging up the work of the Alice Barker Trust, which is the only charity in the UK., providing sound information on funeral and related law. That is based upon my research on law, as stated in Parliament. More than 60 MPs have called for an Emergency Bereavement Service, which would provide free advice on anything and everything connected with dying, death and bereavement.

I agree with Justin, that composting does seem the most environmentally benign way of dealing with bodies.

Justin states above, that it is a serious matter, when Newsnight makes an incorrect statement on law.

I am the person who lodged, on behalf of the above charity, the complaint about that error on law. The final outcome is awaited and I am sure the BBC will act honourably.

Statute law is unambiguous, as Justin et al are now aware. The law requires that notice be given, when bodies have been dealt with by "burial, cremation or any other means"

This matter is a straightforward complaint and not a "legal battle", in the sense that it is not being pursued through the courts.

My warning about the quality of advice, which might be obtained from the Ministry of Justice, was based on my discovery in the 1990s, that the Home Office, (which had responsibility for such matters over about 150 years up until very recently) had a poor grasp of relevant aspects of law and had routinely acted unlawfully. In true ‘Yes Minister’ style, civil servants and ministers have continued to ignore or avoid my reports of unlawful activities by public services. No attempts have ever been made, to prove those reports to be flawed or misleading.

Perhaps because the HO was unfit for purpose in more ways than was known to the former Secretary of State, John Reed, responsibilities were moved to the new Ministry of Justice. That may have helped to conceal past failings but there is every reason to suppose, that the same inadequate understanding of law will continue, along with the lack of interest within government, to stop unlawful activities.

One example was a coroner who, for about 3 months, unlawfully refused to release the body of a young man. The Home Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Lord Chancellor or whoever had responsibility, did not bother to write to the coroner, to provide sound information on relevant law. Bereaved relatives needed peace of mind, not least as Christmas was fast approaching. Despite formal requests for help, no-one from central government gave it. Unlawful and oppressive activities of that type, cannot be acceptable in a modern welfare state, which must be sensitive to the acute needs of those facing emotional emergencies, e.g. the newly bereaved.

For about 150 years, former Home Secretaries issued legally binding instructions, about how to carry out exhumations. One instruction was not only pointless (because of a complete failure to understand the basics of microbiology on decomposing bodies) but a potential threat to the health of those doing the work. That routine instruction was almost certainly unlawful, i.e. because it is a fundamental requirement of English law, that all such instructions must be "reasonable" and so on. Enforcing a serious and pointless threat health, cannot be reasonable, so ipso facto it must be unlawful.

Many graves created within living memory have been destroyed, apparently unlawfully, because the HO failed to understand relevant law. Complaints to the Home Office, Lord Chancellor et al, fell on deaf ears. War veterans watched as their relatives, who were buried within living memory, were dug up with a JCB and dumped in a nearby pit.

Clearly, law breaking is acceptable in many areas of public service, because civil servants, MPs and ministers are made aware of the issues but take no decisive action. Only those with deep pockets can use the courts and only if they are willing to expose their profound grief to adversarial questioning. That should not be necessary, in a modern, civilised society.

The most ubiquitous and worrying of all the unlawful activities which I encounter, is hospital staff insisting on one or more preconditions, before releasing the bodies of babies and children to their bereaved parents. That may mean the parents cannot hold their babies or children for some days, especially when bank holidays create staff shortages. One answer is never die in a hospital and always insist whenever possible, on dying at home or in a hospice. However, I do not believe in running away from public services. Although it always seems hopelessly futile, I constantly press for fundamental improvements in public services. Stamping out unlawful activities would be a good place to start.

Hospitals and dentists still refuse to release body parts, so have not learnt the lessons of the national scandal over children's organs, at Alderhey and the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Phil Hammond, GP., comedian and presenter of the TV programmes 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor', exposed that scandal but his important and courageous work, is a long way from being finished.

About two years ago, I lodged a formal complaint with my own local NHS Trust on that issue and it may soon come to a conclusion.

One legal principle which the Ministry of Justice may not have mentioned to Justin, is that it is legal to continue doing something, especially in terms of an ancient English tradition, unless explicitly stopped by the courts or Parliament.

I am sure Justin and the BBC will readily agree, that the "ultimate authority" on the issue raised, cannot be the Ministry of Justice and that it must be the courts and Parliament. All too often, government departments and local authorities issue unsound information on law. Occasionally it is nothing short of arrant nonsense - see for example Hart District Council's website giving advice on the law of burials in private land. As with other local authorities, that nonsense is being defended by the most senior officials, who bring public services into disrepute.

As illustrated above, it can be very risky, if relying on information from public organisations, not least because their staff may well be unwitting participants in unlawful activities or condoning such activities by their determined silence.

For the avoidance of doubt, the majority of health and welfare staff are doing excellent work. At the other extreme are activities which are grossly incompetent, unlawful and cruel but we need a government which will decisively stamp those out and not simply pledge to do so in election manifestos.

John Bradfield.
Former Medical Social Worker.
Writer on bereavement issues and law.
Alice Barker Trust.
01423 530900 & 8681231

  • 10.
  • At 09:07 PM on 21 Feb 2008,
  • Mansukhlal Shah wrote:

Time and again we are told that there is shortage of organ donors and likewise medical colleges are short of human cadavers required for the training of future medical professionals. Organ donation is, I believe, permitted by law. If I were to donate my cadaver to a teaching hospital for it to use such organs that can save someone else's life and use the rest of the body for medical training and research, would I be in breach of some obscure legislation what punishment will be metted out to me when I am no longer around to be fined, jailed or worst come to worst hanged?

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