Talk about Newsnight

Ethical Man - Justin Rowlatt

I’ll compost your corpse

  • Justin Rowlatt -
  • 2 Apr 07, 10:35 AM

justinapril.jpg“I’ll compost your corpse%E2%80%9D 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%E2%80%9D 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.

justincomposte.jpgBut it is John Cossham who – if you’ll excuse the metaphor – puts the final nail in the coffin for burial. “Some rots,%E2%80%9D he explains, “are more ethical than others.%E2%80%9D 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,%E2%80%9D he asks, “just to get in a good butcher to cut the body into small and easily “compostable%E2%80%9D pieces?%E2%80%9D

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?

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 11:27 AM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Rich wrote:

If being chopped up and composted helps the environment, saves space and means there are less corpses around for the eventual zombie uprising then I'm all for it.

  • 2.
  • At 11:55 AM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Mills wrote:

The police have a forensics unit which always needs bodies. Basically, in order to more accurately be able to assess time of death etc. in murder cases, they leave corpses out in varying environmental conditions and constantly keep notes on how they rot in order to have something to compare bodies found in suspicious circumstances to. A useful and potentially justice-serving end. Perhaps your could explore the ethics of that.

  • 3.
  • At 01:24 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Bro M wrote:

Why is burning a complete body socially acceptable but chopping up and burying the parts in an ethically sound way not? Perhaps saving the planet requires a rethinking of our taboos. And we should be thinking about a compromise - burial that is more environmentally compatable but doesn't offend this particular social norm. Surely that isn't beyond the boundaries of human ingenuity.

  • 4.
  • At 01:35 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Phil wrote:

why not recycle your body and donate your organs?
Either to someone in need of a donor, or to medical research.

  • 5.
  • At 01:40 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Mel wrote:

I am no expert on anthropological matters but it appears to me that many cultures who see a dead body a as merely an empty shell still treat it "with respect". I find that quite strange.

I've often thought about the "Body Farm" option as mentioned by Mills in a previous comment. I don't suppose it could work as a long-term solution as we would end up with massive body farms if we all did it, but hey it's making a point too isn't it - got to be worth checking out.

I would love it if my body could be thrown from a ship in the middle of the ocean (one that was already carrying out some other necessary journey of course!) and eaten by what ever happened to be passing! So what of burial at sea, is that a legal way of disposing of a corpse no longer? Was it ever?!

Here's hoping we get enlightened soon as burial and cremation are clearly no longer viable.

  • 6.
  • At 04:27 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Janey wrote:

Burial at sea in British waters is permitted, in certain areas, under strict circumstances - no infections diseases, specifics of coffin manufacture etc. A permit is required from the Marine Consents & Environment Unit, part of DEFRA. Taking a body out of the UK for burial outside UK waters at least requires a permit for removal of the body, and my be subject to other regs I haven't found yet.
It's only "green" if there's no glue holding the container together, the traditional materials are a few yards of sailcloth and a few fathoms of chain, but the sailcloth shouldn't be synthetic, and the chain will eventually rust away, although it will take longer than the ethical (or any other) man!

  • 7.
  • At 04:38 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Myshkin wrote:

"Soylent Green is made out of people". If someone is willing to suggest that butchering bodies is reasonable behaviour, why not turn them into food, as the sc-fi film Soylent Green shows?

This is Third Reich practicality.

  • 8.
  • At 05:41 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Turkeybellyboy wrote:

Wasn't (Dame) Barbara Cartland buried in a cardboard coffin, with a nice tree put on top? There are a growing [sorry] number of places where you can be buried in a field, with a nice view and lots of trees, whose roots can suck up your goodness. That sounds pretty ethical!

  • 9.
  • At 07:29 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Jo wrote:

You could donate your body to a medical school - we always need doctors. Then at least it is recycled.

  • 10.
  • At 07:58 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Brian J Dickenson wrote:

I'm all for being green while alive so why not be green when I'm dead. Funeral homes and churches etc make a fine living out of 'proper funerals'. Either compost me or plant me under a tree, whichever costs the least.
I won't be there anyway.

  • 11.
  • At 11:40 PM on 02 Apr 2007,
  • Pete wrote:

"Like all Loonies, we conserve our dead--and am truly glad that barbaric custom of burial was left back on old Earth; our way is better. But Davis family does not put that which comes out of processor into our commercial farming tunnels. No. It goes into our little greenhouse tunnel, there to become roses and daffodils and peonies among soft-singing bees. Tradition says that Black Jack Davis is in there, or whatever atoms of him do remain after many, many, many years of blooming.
Is a happy place, a beautiful place."

R A Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 1966 Maybe its about time we caught up with him.

Death rituals are powerful in our society as a way for the grieving relatives to come to peace with the death of a loved one - I kinda don't think it will catch on really. Maybe if it was linked to a permanent memorial - I'd like to have a park bench with a plaque dedicated to me when I go!

  • 13.
  • At 12:56 AM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • Lionel Tiger wrote:

I've always liked to think my living has greater benefit than my death. In terms of Carbon emissions, I doubt this is true. I like to think all the other things I do outweigh the things that would and wouldn't happen if I wasn't here. If I take nothing physical with me after death, I'd like to take my discoveries. I'd like my corpse to be frozen with liquid nitrogen, as I don't like the thought of being burnt alive. I don't like the thought of being a corpse in limbo either. Being frozen into millions of pieces seems the best option to me, just like losing the feeling when building snowmen. I'd like to think this last decision can be my choice and no-one else's. A final breath from the vestige of my selfish gene. This will truly be the time when I will say to hell with it, it really is someone else's problem.

  • 14.
  • At 02:58 AM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • Adrian wrote:

Shall we all grok our dead friends?

  • 15.
  • At 12:33 PM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • JE Seaman wrote:

Don't the Parsi put thier folks out for the birds? I believe the Tibetans do some chopping up too. Perhaps these folks have some suggestions as to how we can be more flexible with rituals for the dead.

  • 16.
  • At 01:26 PM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • Lata wrote:

One of the issues is how we can remember our dead. I've always liked burial as I know there's a grave where I can remember them. I don't like cremation as often that isn't the case. I'd be interested in the tree idea - then the tree is the place.

  • 17.
  • At 02:08 PM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • Julie wrote:

In regards to post 8, my mother was buried in 2004 in a Woodland Burial Ground which we found in a book called "The Natural Death Handbook". She had joked about wanting to be buried in a cardboard box at the bottom of our garden, and was very pleased to discover that such things were actually possible!

Our Woodland Burial Ground, Hinton Park, offers a choice of traditional oak effect, cardboard or bamboo coffins, each with no handles. My understanding being that the cardboard coffins are designed to be eco-friendly and to fully decompose.

I believe some Woodland Burial Grounds allow you to supply your own coffin, and there are various suppliers of cardboard and other eco-friendly coffins listed in the handbook.

With Woodland Burial the graves are marked with name plaques and (native) trees, and you can also plant flowers. The idea being that the area will be allowed to develop into a woodland.

I can certainly vouch for the fact that it creates a beautiful setting, which I personally find much more appealing than rows and rows of headstones. The clumps of daffodils and hyacinths on a sunny spring day are really a sight to behold!

  • 18.
  • At 02:35 PM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • Sheri wrote:

I can't see how putting a body in a food processor or whatever is any different to burning it, except you get more useful nutrients. But, would they get people who would do the work?

But, I suppose since I am human, I like the idea of visiting the departed, and perhaps even of being visited - I may not be there, but it is a recognition that I had been alive. I like the hydrogren idea, or even better, the Woodland Burial Grounds.

  • 19.
  • At 09:46 PM on 03 Apr 2007,
  • SM wrote:

When I die I just want a memorial bench on Hampstead Heath - I don't give e monkeys what happens to my body. Given I like to lead a reasonable ethical life, can I offset the trees used to make the bench?

  • 20.
  • At 12:48 AM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • steve breadfruit wrote:

'Alas, I am food for worms!' - Mercutio ( From Romeo & Juliet)
'Alas, I am food for worms!...still, thats better than using up 285kwh of gas I suppose...) - ethical Mercutio

Interesting. There seems to be a consensus that we don't really mind what happens to our own bodies. Another way of looking at the question would be to ask yourself what you like done with the body of your loved one, especially as you are usually numb with grief when making these decisions?

  • 22.
  • At 04:41 AM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • Tim Evans wrote:


Please refer to the 2003 book entitled Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. A chapter in the book is devoted to composting as an alternative to burial and cremation.

By the way, I can attest to the viability of composting. I run a composting business in the U.S. I assist veterinarians and their clients, by composting people's pets. Part of my service is to plant a memorial plant or tree with the composted remains i.e. a dogwood with ones dog, catnip with ones cat. It works quite well.

I always wanted a sky burial, like the native Americans, where the honured dead were left atop a hill on a bier for scavengers to recycle as per nature intended... Now I'm wondering whether there are sufficient carrion crows in England these days, or whether the zoo might chip in with some vultures and start a handy fund-raising activity.

  • 24.
  • At 10:19 AM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • Karen wrote:

I understand that when some people die they might want to be chopped up into little bits and composted, or their bodies donated to a body farm.

However, it isn't them that will have to carry out their last wishes - it's their family or loved ones.

My son may think it's cool to be minced and mulched after death, but I can't bear to think of my child lying dead on a slab whilst some butcher hacks him to pieces. The mental image is too traumatic, too distressing. I wouldn't be able to allow that to happen to him.

I also don't like the idea of his body being left on the ground at a body farm somewhere, being left to rot and poked and prodded every so often. There is no dignity there.

People need to think of the distress the surviving relatives might feel if the relatives are asked to dispose of the deceased's body in a manner which the relatives would find upsetting to them.

Do we have a right to traumatise our families in this way?

  • 25.
  • At 01:19 PM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • John, Sevenoaks wrote:

Yes Parsi or Zoroastrian idea of putting out for vultures - high on pillars out of the way - must be the most e-friendly way.

Bob Hope's wife asked him the question 'burial or cremation?'. He replied, 'I don't know; surprise me'.

  • 26.
  • At 03:23 PM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

The problem with more ecologically friendly coffins is that the undertaker would usually line the coffin with plastic sheeting, most do not rot down and further inhibit decomposition by containing the fluids that seep from the copse within a "plastic marinade"!.

Woodland burial is fine but with the close poximity of graves there is the issue that surely the trees would need to be thinned out as they mature. I only know of one forward thinking cemetery which places coffins within a glade clearing for this reason.

  • 27.
  • At 06:35 PM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • Susan Quinn wrote:

My mother died nearly ten years ago and was cremated as per her wishes.

Her ashes were scattered very close to the location that she had specified, in the sea, at a place that she loved more than any other on this earth.

By now they must all be scattered around the globe with the tides, but I never feel that I need a place to go to to remember her - I have the place right here with me all the time - in my heart.

I've long said I want to be composted. This whole discussion quickly brings up another problem the green movement needs to address- the "which one is better?" question.

As a start, we need to develop a "Life-cycle energy cost" number, that is a recognized standard. The numbers here about the energy costs of cremation are wonderful- I'm glad to have them. But what are the energy costs for a cheap coffin? An expensive one? The fuel burned by the procession and the hearse?

I'd love to be able to SEE an honest straight comparison, and know the calculations are comparable.

Something like; total cost for
cremation, 750 Kwh
burial: 890 Kwh
composting: 157 KwH-
liquid nitrogen path: 520 Kwh.

You get the idea- I made those up, of course, but boy, I'd love to be able to see numbers like that- regarding ALL questions- as a regular thing.

  • 29.
  • At 01:44 AM on 05 Apr 2007,
  • Susan wrote:

Ethical Man certainly is getting down the business of disposing of his body.

Composting is certainly one way.

I think I'd rather plant a tree not a headstone.

It's a shame the ethical man will be composted as he'll be too late to attend The London Green Funeral Exhibition, 28 April, Holborn WC1 - to see lots of options.

Information from The Natural Death Centre, tel 0871 288 2098,

  • 30.
  • At 08:02 AM on 05 Apr 2007,
  • annie wrote:

I have indicated in my will that I would like my body to be donated to medical research after my death; however, I know that the med schools finally cremate the body and return the ashes to the family (at least that is what happens in the US). So there is still the cremation issue... we do need a public discussion of this in the environmetal lobby. Well done for bringing it into the open.

  • 31.
  • At 07:05 AM on 07 Apr 2007,
  • Gordon wrote:

Yes, there does need to be a public debate on the ecology of body diposal & choices.

Not just choices, but the meaning and impact of those choices.

In an increasingly consumer driven society then funerals could be treated as a product. But the purpose and ritual of the funeral should not be overlooked for choice in whicker coffins and whether to release doves !!!

It needs to have meaning.

At The London Green Funeral Exhibition mentioned above
-- are planning on having a panel discussion on green funerals -
it should be most lively.

Funeral Directors are not going to start that debate, it needs to come from us.

I think that's what the Natural Death Centre have been doing for the last 15 years by pioneering & leading the natural death movement.

Where do you stand on choice versus consumerism versus ecology versus ritual?
Or will you be dead and so won't give a hoot.

  • 32.
  • At 01:28 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Martyn wrote:

My Grandad always used to say he'd be happy being chucked on the compost heap while everyone whistled "I'm for ever blowing bubbles". He died over 30 years ago - clearly a man ahead of his time.

I feel as unconcerned as he did about what happens to me. I know my family will want a say as well - but I'm not sure any of the above are actually worse mental images than cremation..just we are used to that being "normal" so probably don't thing about it too much.

I also slightly wonder if we aren't getting this out of proportion though. There must be ways of dealing with bodies that are better and worse, but by definition each of us will die just once. Its the things we do every year, or every month or every day (like driving miles to work) that really add up to a major impact on the environment.

  • 33.
  • At 09:58 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Janet wrote:

Hmm. Interesting topic. My mother was cremated and her ashes scattered. My mother-in-law says "mulch pile". My husband's grandmother died recently, and her coffin was encased in cement, as required by the (local Canadian) authorities, which horrified me somewhat. So much for decomposing, locked in all that stuff! I do like the idea of freeze-drying and adding my loved one (or myself) to the compost pile. Except if you move, of course, and leave the compost pile behind!

  • 34.
  • At 09:22 AM on 16 May 2007,
  • rose wrote:

My Mum was a gardener and keen composter. We burried her on our own land in a grave that wasn't too deep (so she was close to the loam layer of soil). We bought a eco coffin off the internet who delivered the coffin to the funeral directors. Her funeral was beautiful and fitting close to her own beloved garden. We deffinately couldn't have coped with chopping her up! There is a mid way.

  • 35.
  • At 10:58 AM on 16 May 2007,
  • Lionel Tiger wrote:

The ethics of composting corpses are equal to that of Zero Point Energy. Corpses rot, it's a fact. Cremation is a public health issue to prevent the spread of disease. Imposing a rotting corpse on the living is as ethically problematic as is providing reservoirs for mosquitoes to breed, spreading malaria. Does the landfill tax apply to rotting corpses ? If so, then maybe there should be a series of crematoria that act to power electricity to the national grid. This does however have the macabre similarities to the concentration camps operated by antisemitic socialist fascists of the past. Should the use of biological washing powder be a better more ethical option than cremation for corpse disposal ?

  • 36.
  • At 10:53 AM on 17 Jul 2007,
  • J Westermanj wrote:

It is one thing to compost a body: quite another to compost the feelings and memories of husband or wife , family and friends.

  • 37.
  • At 09:45 AM on 19 Sep 2007,
  • Astrid Horward wrote:

I think all contributions above have made this subject delightfully authentic. It is so important for us to actually have these discussions. I personally believe that my family and friends will be glad to be able to say farewell to me in a ritual of my choice and hopefully have a good laugh when composting me or have a picnic to remember me underneath the tree that feeds on me. I suggest the 'Natural Death Handbook' for more info on death and dying and burial.

  • 38.
  • At 03:13 PM on 17 Nov 2007,
  • Gwawdiwr wrote:

Might I suggest anaerobic digestion as an alternative to composting? Leading on from an earlier post on the lifecycle cost of the various options, this method appears to have been left out - but given that the human body is largely digestible, this could be a very energy efficient option. Of course, you'd need to mince up the deceased first to ensure that your feedstock was appropriately prepared, but after this you'd have a nice benign process which generates biogas (which can be burned to generate electricity) and a compostable residue which could be used as a growing medium.

It might even be carbon-neutral. I'm all for being minced and turned into biogas and horticultural growing medium myself :-)

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