Ecological Burial: Body Composting

by Levi

‘Ecological Burial’ or ‘Body Composting’ are names for a method of burial which has gained media attention and popularity in recent years. Several companies[1] offer services in which the deceased’ body is put through refrigeration, chemical, or decomposition processes that turn the body into nutrient-rich compost so they can be integrated into soil, usually closely tied to ideas of eco-friendliness or being close to nature. Simply due to its relation to death rites and the disposal of bodies but also because of its core ideals, body composting has close connections to the body and culture. In this essay, I shall approach how body composting relates to culture, seeing how this recently-introduced method of burial can be of both symbolic and functional significance.

From a symbolic/interpretive perspective, the concept of body composting is a matter of image and communication, frequently conveying environmentalist values by using the body as a cultural symbol. Clifford Geertz argues in his text Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology that culture is “embodied in public symbols and actions”[2], and one’s body, particularly in death, has huge cultural importance on a public level, holding meaning in a cultural context. Similar to how scattering ashes from cremation, a Tibetan sky burial[3], or a Christian ground burial have philosophical and ritual connections, ecological burial stands for certain beliefs and conveys the deceased’ values to their whole culture. The body serves as a direct symbol that communicates how a person viewed the world, transmitting ideals such as a dedication to nature or being involved in the broader cycle of life. Body composting works well in the context of Geertz’ webs of significance: many humans imbue cultural meaning in being eco-friendly or close to the natural world (forming the webs), and body composting works to make one’s body an ultimate symbolic gesture in support of those concepts (man becoming ‘suspended in those webs’, using his/her own body).

Another way to look at body composting is through a functionalist perspective. Proponents of ecological burial argue that body composting is not only symbolic but also serves a definite purpose for the benefit of their whole society[4]. Standard methods of burial fail to meet certain needs of a culture, frequently taking up or wasting resources, and many of these issues are addressed by body composting. There is often a lack of burial space in cities, with cemeteries becoming increasingly crowded, urbanized, and impersonal. Additionally, the body holds nutrients which are usually wasted in standard burial but can be effectively recycled for agricultural growth through body composting (the bodies of livestock are already used in some places for fertilizer in agriculture). Among functionalism’s seven basic needs are bodily comforts and nutrition[5], which are addressed by body composting when the process contributes to making more spacious and well-organized cities as well as aiding in food production. Utilizing human bodies not only works as a symbolic gesture in support of nature; through a functionalist lens, it also directly serves the basic needs of the culture, taking up less space and helping agriculture.

[1] See Urban Death Project: , accessed 4 Nov. 2015 Promessa Organic: , accessed 4 Nov. 2015.

[2] McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms. 2004[1996]. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (Third Edition). New York: McGraw HIll. pg. 467.

[3] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 31 Aug. 2015

[4] See profile here:

[5]:, accessed Nov.4


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23 Responses to Ecological Burial: Body Composting

  1. Larissa Hunt says:

    I found your blog post really interesting. I think that body composting is definitely a controversial issue especially in the contemporary US but I thought you did a great job of looking at this concept through different theoretical perspectives that could definitely make a case for body composting. While I was reading this I couldn’t help but think about how a cultural ecologist might look at body composting as perhaps a necessity in an environment that lacks high nutrient rich land to use.

  2. Leo Borasio says:

    I thought this post was very interesting, and it made me think of the tree urns that you can now place deceased people’s ashes in. I think symbolically it ties in with the circle of life in a very natural way, and it will be interesting to see if the trend catches on in the future. Body composting is interesting, because it is much like ground burial, but functional towards later use, which is why I think it could catch on.

  3. Anne Poirot says:

    I would be interested to hear about reactions of this technique. I have a feeling that people would perceive it as different from cremation, even though it sounds like it is actually a more effective way of giving back to the earth. I can relate this back to our discussion in class over Tibetan burials and allowing scavenging animals pick apart at a body. This is a brilliant example of ecological theory and environmental anthropology–it really shows how our environment impacts our cultural norms and traditions.

  4. Camille Gaty says:

    I think another important part of the symbolism of body composting is the idea of ‘giving back’ to the earth and the land. Honestly, I might like to be buried like this, and be a part of something and be useful to other beings rather than wasting away in a coffin. Would you guys do it?

  5. Audrianna Bobo says:

    I have never heard of body composting before, so it was cool to learn about that thorugh your essay. I think that at first many people might see this new way of burial as strange or uncomfortable, but you did a really nice job of analyizing it, bringing fourth the many ways that this can be seen in a ritual and spiritual way where the body is giving back and being repurposed in the world where it lived its life and helping that world to live on.

  6. Alexis Bush says:

    I find this essay extremely interesting and I have actually been recently researching this subject a little bit because I find it so cool. I really liked your use and explanation of theories in this paper. For your explanation on its tie to symbolic interpretivism, I think that you could also add in another symbol for Americans. Many people want to do this because this could also be a symbol of life, rebirth, and ongoing existence. To be planted into this earth after death, symbolically, you live on. Great essay!

  7. Natalia Sabadell says:

    I think the concept of Ecological Burial is really interesting and not a lot of people know about it. I wonder how different cultures would react to this form of burial and if it will eventually become a common way of burial. I like your point about Body Composting being something that brings us closer to nature and being part of the broader cycle of life. Do you think that is why people may be attracted to this form of burial?

  8. Victoria Prager says:

    I really enjoyed your article and agree with both of your uses of the theories. I thought is was especially creative arguing how ecological burials relate to functionalism and bring up the interesting point of how we satisfy the seven basic needs even in our death. As others have mentioned I would have liked to see this analyzed through an cultural ecologists perspective even though we hadn’t learned the theory at the time. It makes me wonder how different religions would view this process.

  9. Nicholas Paulin says:

    This is a very interesting topic and it made for a fantastic read. I really liked how you added in the symbolic and interpretive view because for the viewer, it can certainly be seen as two totally different things. Such as a way to honor someones life or something that just makes you say I cannot believe they are doing that in public. I was drawn to this essay because I remember seeing a television show about a man that traveled to India and they were composting bodies right next door to the Taj Mahal. For me being a foreigner, I was astonished because you never see that advertised or talked about anywhere. Anyways, great topic and very interesting read!

  10. Jona Block says:

    You bring up an interesting point when you say that one’s burial conveys how they viewed the world. I have never thought about burials that way. As we see religion declining in societies around the world, it seems like the ecological burial will become more popular. It is a symbolic act, expressing your affinity with nature.

    • Heidi Shortreed says:

      I don’t know that this concept is necessarily related to a decline in religion. I think that it is more related to a new-found appreciation of environmental resources and conservationist ideals that have been widely popularized since the 1970’s. I think that the idea of body composting can be looked at through the eyes of economic anthropology. An economic anthropologist would say that body composting is a movement towards redistributing bodies back to the Earth, so that more resources will later be available for production, distribution, and consumption. An economic anthropologist may also say that body composting is a movement against capitalist ideals.

  11. Anna Bockhaus says:

    Well done! I liked how you connected burial practices as connected to one’s ideals when it comes to the environment and nature. Had we learned the cultural ecology theory before this assignment was due it would have gone perfectly in your essay. You touch on and use the theory, without explicitly using it. Burial practices can be seen as a reaction to the specific ecological climate one lives in. Ecologically, it makes more sense to cremate remains when living high within the Himalayas, rather than trying to find a spot to bury them. I really enjoyed your essay!

  12. Orion Felice says:

    I like how you addressed that “there is often a lack of burial space in cities.” You don’t just see a cemetery in downtown Denver, or in the middle of an urban sprawl. With the world’s population continuing to grow, we will eventually have to come to terms with the lack of space needed to perform “normal” burial practices, normal being specific to the cultural context. Cultural burial practices, such as our own in the U.S. for example, will have to adapt to the environments lack of space. Composting the body after death does seem like a responsible way to pay it forward, and I like the fact that you looked at the pros of doing so.

  13. Megan Swenson says:

    This is an interesting topic to think about from an anthropological perspective. I have often thought about what I want done with my body when I die (jeez, I’m young. Why have I thought about this so much?) and I think I’d like to be composted in this way, maybe be planted with a tree or something. Symbolically, yes, I agree that I would be making an environmentalist statement by requesting my remains to be used in this manner. I think that traditional American burials–like in the ground, in a coffin-type stuff–is an archaic practice, and the earth could use our bodies more naturally in a way that benefits the soil and the environment as a whole. Good read!

  14. Noelle says:

    I really enjoyed your article and thought it was very interesting. I liked how in the second paragraph of the essay you mentioned how from a symbolic/interpretive perspective body composting perhaps reflects the growing eco-awareness of today’s culture because it shows people’s values. To expand on this idea, I think that it would be cool to do additional research on the topic to see which places in the area (world, state, city, school, etc) tend to be more eco-friendly and why e.g. Boulder, Colorado.

  15. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    I really liked this article because I’m very interested in the topic. I have actually thought a lot about how I want to be buried and an ecological burial is at the top of my list. As time goes on, people have become much more aware of our depleting resources and our other detrimental habits to the environment which has made eco-friendly burials a more common possibility for some people. Taking something as serious for some people as death and burial ceremonies, and still trying to make it beautiful and meaningful, has been very controversial in this topic. Majority of the people who are dying presently are the elderly who lived through more traditional times and want to keep traditions going. Therefore, ecological burials are not usually their first choice for burial. Hopefully with the growth of the next generations, as we live through a dying world and see it in front of our eyes, ecological burials will become the norm.

  16. Peter Koukov says:

    Very nice essay, you kept me engaged the entire time. This is a topic i really dont know much about so it was nice to read up a little on this subject. You tied in symbolic anthropology and functionalism in very well especially in explaining what the body represents. Personally i believe that ecological burials should be the normal procedure for dealing with a body after death because not only does it keep from harming the environment it is actually giving back to the soil and could help in many ways agriculturally.

  17. Elizabeth Williamson says:

    I think it is so fascinating that no matter where you look in the world each culture has a different burial practice that has become the revered way of handling the body after death. I was really pleased with your symbolic and interpretive analysis, it drew me into thinking about how I can make a statement even after I am gone.

  18. Jenna says:

    I find this essay extremely interesting. Burial rites and rituals are a very dense area of research with a wealth of significance and root ideas of what the meaning of life is. Burial rituals vary a lot across cultures and time periods, the conventional coffin six feet under ground is only one of these many rituals. I’d heard of this kind of burial method and it interests me a lot on a cultural level why people begin to deviate from conventional practices and search for new ways to symbolize the passing of a person from this life to whatever is next.

  19. Samantha Pollak says:

    I think your symbolic and functionalist analysis on this very current and controversial topic are perfect. This type of burial practice is extremely functional and in my opinion, the direction things need to go towards. We waste so much space underground with coffins, materials and money are wasted, and worst of all, bodies can’t continue on their natural cycle. This is symbolically interrupting a spiritual path of reincarnation and contradicting any effort for humans to reverse the damage we did to the earth. Great essay topic.

  20. Seaira Lee says:

    This essay is needless to say, very interesting. I can defiantly understand why this topic would be much debated in our contemporary U.S but through the different theoretical point of views I can understand how one might make a case in support for ecological burial. I liked how you brought up the lack of space for the traditional coffin burials because its so true. Its very clear that we are running out of room and its time we look more into more Eco-friendly aspects like this. Overall I really enjoyed reading this essay, I think its very well written and in general a good read!

  21. Dillon Ragar (Rec. 13) says:

    Great essay, this is a very cool topic. To me, it seems like body composting is the opposite of symbolic gesture. Every culture has a strict protocol for how to handle and respect death. This seems like a taboo that is never broken in the U.S.—burial or cremation are the only accepted methods. Composting seems natural, and a smarter way to minimize our impact. Burying people in the ground really does not make any sense. I recently read an article describing how many people are starting to be cremated and stored in giant warehouses in China. Very thought provoking, nice work!

  22. Rebecca says:

    Great analysis! This topic reminds me of a ted talk I saw about a year ago (link below). I personally believe this technique of burial is a beautiful ode to life and gives us an opportunity to “give back” by creating life in the form of foliage as apposed to further polluting the planet by being embalmed.

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