Is it legal to compost your loved ones?
- 22 Jan 08, 11:52 AM
I bring grave news: a legal dispute compels me to disturb the remains of Ethical Man.
Regular 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.
So 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.