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Special Earth or the Faithful Departed?

Issue Two

Mark Milosch

A version of this essay was previously published in First Things.

In the run-up to New York’s legalization of human composting, last December the New York Times offered readers a Guest Essay inviting us to reframe our own deaths so as to get them aligned with our hopes and dreams for a healthy planet. As you might guess, this is a process that will require facing the reality of our place in the life cycle and of a changing climate. But it’s natural for us to want to give something back. In any case, now we have the chance to become nutrient rich soil and shade the salmon streams of the Pacific Northwest or grow a tree in the backyard of a loved one. Thanks in large part to the work of the author, Caitlin Doughty, who is passionate about the science and ethics of human composting.

Ms. Doughty is a social media influencer, a modern media genius, a mortician who dresses campily in black for her 1.94M YouTube subscribers. Her goal is to see composting overtake cremation as the default American deathcare. With New York’s following on Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, and California, Doughty and her associated network of activist-entrepreneurs have moved into the media-campaign phase of their project. There have been over one hundred articles on human composting in recent months—but Doughty’s essay in the Times will be the locus classicus.

“The details vary but human composting generally works like this: The process takes place inside a cylindrical vessel—they remind me of a Japanese capsule hotel for the dead . . . .” She provides drawings, graphs, and scientific explanation of a process that involves filling the vessel with sawdust and alfalfa; adding a body; perhaps also flowers and other meaningful organic materials; microbes; temperature and airflow controls; and rotating the cylinder.

You can fill in the rest—and it’s difficult to object to science. The result: “This special earth can then be scattered in a cemetery, placed in a grave or given to the family to use as it sees fit.”

Those gaudy gold reliquaria bearing the bones of certain saints—one day those fingers and jawbones will be resurrected in the flesh, that is in a glorified body, like that of the Lord when he appeared in the Upper Room.

She pivots between factual-scientific explanation and special settings. When we meet her, she is carrying “buckets full of wood chips up a leafy hill in rural North Carolina.” The body she is about to compost is “lying on the forest floor in dappled sunlight.” When we say farewell, she is in a forest in Washington on “a re-wilding logging path,” where her human compost will “help regrow native trees and eventually bring shade to a salmon-spawning stream.”

Rudely spoiling the mood, the New York State Catholic Conference gets quoted as saying that natural organic reduction is “more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.”

“Holdouts,” replies Doughty, “there are still a few . . . .”

The American funeral industry, she goes on, promotes the idea that dignified treatment of a dead body requires formaldehyde embalming, a sealed casket, and a concrete vault.

Well, on this point she scores, at least with me. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In November I visited the graves of my grandparents. It was drizzling and I had to hop around puddles as I looked for their graves in a gigantic massified cemetery that serves an entire region of Michigan, with jets overhead and adjacent highway. In other words, there was nothing dappled about it, and nearby no salmon streams. We have come a long way from the old churchyards. I didn’t stand long in the rain but said some short prayers for them and their descendants, and mostly thanked God for everything that he gave to me through them and their sacrifices—which is, well, everything I am and have—tracked mud back into the car and drove away. On my mind was a scene from a few weeks before. I had been driving through the Polish countryside, past, as it happens, one of those old churchyards, and was surprised to see from the road my family name on some gravestones. As it happens, this was the parish where my great-great-grandmother had buried her mother before she emigrated in 1895: I pulled over to explore the cemetery, which turned out to be covered in road dust, surrounded by fallow flat fields full of crap and junk, with metal cans and plastic bottles in the ditch; yet most of the graves had been freshly tended, with new candles or flowers.

From within the common mentality there really is no response to Doughty. The real issue is not the funeral business, though by making mourning distanced, passive, and expensive, it made straight the way of cremation and composting. The issue is not even compost. “Dust will be dust,” our Morticia echoes politely, and my ancestors in Poland, buried in plain pine coffins, will have shared what was until quite recently the common destiny of Christian Europe. They are now, if you will, special earth.

The Catholic rite of committal says it shortly: “Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb, you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies. Grant that our brother/sister (Name) may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory.”

This calls to mind a few things. Those gaudy gold reliquaria bearing the bones of certain saints—one day those fingers and jawbones will be resurrected in the flesh, that is in a glorified body, like that of the Lord when he appeared in the Upper Room. The early Christians gathered them as well. What they looked forward to was not to be a “soul in heaven” but a glorified body in a new heaven and new earth. Souls in heaven is a strictly intermediary state between death and the resurrection of glorified bodies at the end of time.

There is a vasty deep between this and self-redeeming by becoming special earth to fight climate change and repair the damage we’ve done to nature. Need I say that whether Doughty is in REI-ad mode, rewilding dappled salmon, or running comparative specs on composting, cremation, and coffin-vault burial, the market-place idol on parade is always and only “the environment”?

Memento mori. “Only one thing is certain: we will die and sooner than we think,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, and he was not polemicizing with transhumanists. An occasional prayer: “Grant me the grace, Lord, to show up for death a man fully alive, wrapped in the rich reality of life, including the uglies—even to show up like Henry V ‘our gayness and our gilt besmirched with rainy marching in the painful fields’ will be fine with me.” An old cowboy ballad has it that, “I've always wished to be laid when I died/ In a little churchyard on the green hillside.” The way history is going, it’s probably too much to ask for this today, but—warning to my family—if you compost me, I may come back to haunt you.

Mark Milosch is the author of Modernizing Bavaria: The Politics of Franz Josef Strauss and the CSU, 1949‒1969. He has a law degree and a doctorate in modern European history, and has worked in foreign affairs for the U.S. Congress, a federal agency, and a nonprofit foundation. He lives in Maryland.

Posted on October 17, 2023

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