California legalizes 'human composting' as burial alternative amid Catholic opposition

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a bill signing ceremony at Nido's Backyard Mexican Restaurant on Feb. 9, 2022, in San Francisco, California.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a bill signing ceremony at Nido's Backyard Mexican Restaurant on Feb. 9, 2022, in San Francisco, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A new California law allows human cadavers to potentially be used as garden soil in growing food for human consumption, drawing criticism from the Golden State's Catholic bishop's conference. 

On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 351, known as The Cemetery and Funeral Act, which establishes a framework to license and regulate a process for cemeteries and other similar facilities in which dead human bodies are converted into soil.

Known as natural organic reduction (NOR), the approach involves placing bodies into vessels that resemble human coffins and then transforming the remains into "nutrient-dense soil," according to Democratic Assemblymember Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, who authored the bill.

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The NOR process involves the body of a deceased person being mixed with natural materials and air in a "reduction chamber," where the body is periodically turned, eventually resulting in the body's reduction to a soil material.

Human remains are held together with straw, wood chips or other natural materials inside of a large tank, container or similar vessel until the process is complete.

NOR is considered to be more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial — "which can leach chemicals into the ground" — or cremation, according to Garcia.

AB 351 does not prohibit the use of any material derived from the NOR process to be sold or used as soil to grow food for human consumption. It's unclear whether that question would be addressed under the proposed regulatory framework.

The bill, set to take effect in January 2027, would make California the fifth state to legalize the process, following Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Colorado's law doesn't allow the soil to be used for growing food meant for human consumption. 

Celebrating the bill's passage on Facebook, Garcia referred to the NOR process as "human composting" and said the process "saves the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon from entering the environment."

Garcia told CBS News that she hopes when the law does finally go into effect, the human composting process will help mitigate some of the extreme weather California has faced in recent years.

"Given the heat that we've been under, the drought, the wildfires — we need to do everything and anything to reduce our carbon emissions and create more eco-friendly options in all spaces," she was quoted as saying.

Before the bill's signing, Garcia said she personally plans to take advantage of AB 351 to "help with California's carbon footprint."

"I look forward to continuing my legacy to fight for clean air by using my reduced remains to plant a tree," she added.

As Catholic leaders have voiced opposition to similar bills in other states, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops (CCC) voiced opposition to AB 351, saying the NOR process "reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity."

In a statement provided to The Christian Post, CCC Executive Director Kathleen Domingo warned that beyond theological considerations, there are ethical issues as well, namely the use of human remains treated as a "mass grave."

"Dispersing the remains in public locations, without an advisory to members of the public, risks people treading over human remains without their knowledge while repeated dispersions in the same area are tantamount to a mass grave," said Domingo.

While composting human remains is a relatively new trend, a 2016 study found Americans' preference for cremation has jumped to just over half (50.2%).

According to the National Funeral Director's Association, the projected cremation rate for 2025 is 63.3%

Amid the ongoing debate over whether Christians should cremate or bury the dead, burial remains a preferred method for some because of the Christian concept of the coming resurrection at the end of the age.

However, Evangelical leader, pastor and Desiring God founder John Piper has stated that he believes that cremation can sometimes be an acceptable practice.

In an episode of "Ask Pastor John," a listener inquired about the ethics of cremation in relation to donating one's body to science.

While Piper previously stated his opposition to cremation, he signaled support for donating one's organs to science after death.

A listener specifically asked the Bible teacher his opinion on whether cremation was an acceptable practice after a person had given their organs to science.

"If we act from faith, it can be a beautiful act of love for Christians to donate their organs and tissues for medical use," Piper replied. "Yes, cremation, while not ideal, may carry new meaning under those circumstances."

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