Terramation is a new, eco-friendly alternative to burial or cremation. Read on to learn what it means, how it works and how much it costs.
What does terramation mean?
Terramation is another word for human composting, or ‘natural organic reduction’. Quite simply, it means turning a human body into soil.
This is what happens naturally anyway. When we die, our bodies decompose and turn back into simple nutrients that can help plants grow.
That’s one reason why people often mark a woodland burial with a tree or plant. It symbolises a person’s body returning to the earth and helping to create new life.
Terramation isn’t the same as woodland burial, though. It uses a special process to speed up decomposition and transform a person’s body into safe, usable soil.
How does human composting work?
Terramation is a relatively new idea. Right now, only a handful of human composting companies exist – and each takes a slightly different approach to the terramation process.
We’ve used Recompose’s method as a guide here. Other companies may differ on small details, but the general process is largely the same.
1. The ‘laying in’
This is what Recompose calls a terramation burial. Instead of burying a body in the ground, they place it in a reusable steel pod, where it will naturally decompose. The body is surrounded by plant materials like wood chips and straw. These materials help speed up decomposition.
Family and friends are allowed to attend this part of the process. There’s usually a ceremony that feels a lot like a funeral or graveside service. People might say prayers, read poems and help prepare the body by placing the plant materials around it. A shroud covers the body during the ceremony.
2. The decomposition process
After the laying in, the body is left to decompose in its pod. No chemicals are used – the body is broken down by natural bacteria that live inside us. The pod is rotated occasionally and oxygen is pumped in to help the bacteria work faster.
3. Turning the body into soil
The decomposition process takes about 30 days. Once it’s finished, the entire body will have transformed into soil, including bones.
This soil isn’t safe to use yet, though. First, it has to dry out and cure, which takes between 2 and 6 weeks. Each body creates about 1 cubic yard of soil.
The person’s family can then choose to take the soil home or donate it to a conservation project. If they take it home, they can use it to grow a plant in their own garden or scatter it in a special place.
Why is human composting good?
One of the biggest benefits of human composting is that it’s good for the environment – at least compared to burial and cremation. Cremation burns through lots of natural gas. And burial can pollute the soil with embalming chemicals and bulky, non-biodegradable coffins.
The terramation process, meanwhile, uses no chemicals, requires fewer natural resources and leaves nothing behind but safe, fertile soil. Recompose – one of the best-known human composting companies – claims its process saves between 0.84 and 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide with every funeral.
Not everybody is a fan of terramation, though. Some people simply don’t like the idea and would rather stick to a traditional funeral. Others disagree with it on religious grounds. Some Catholic faith leaders, for instance, have argued that human composting goes against their beliefs.
Is human composting legal in the UK?
Composting a human body is not currently legal in the UK.
This is because there are strict rules about how bodies are put to rest. And since the terramation process is quite new, it hasn’t yet been reviewed or signed off by the UK Government.
If you live in the UK and you’re interested in terramation, you might want to consider a woodland burial instead. This is another kind of eco-friendly funeral that has similar goals to terramation and is perfectly legal.
You can learn more about woodland burials in our guide.
Where is terramation legal?
Terramation was invented in the United States – and this remains the only country where the process has received some level of legal backing.
Currently, there are 6 US states that allow human composting or have agreed to allow it in future. These are:
- Washington (from 2019)
- Colorado (from 2021)
- Oregon (from 2021)
- Vermont (from 2023)
- New York (from 2023)
- California (from 2027)
How much does terramation cost?
We can’t say for sure how much terramation will cost in the UK, because it’s not yet allowed here.
However, we can get a rough idea by looking at the cost of human composting in the US. There are currently four human composting companies in operation, which charge between $3000 and $7000 for a terramation package.
This might sound expensive, but it actually costs about the same as a traditional funeral. In the States, the average cost of a cremation with a service is $6970 – while a burial costs around $9420 (Choice Mutual).
Bear in mind that these terramation costs are just for a basic package, though. They might not include things like transport, flowers and the funeral service itself.
More alternatives to a traditional burial or cremation
Funeral Choice helps people find local funeral directors and compare costs. For more guides to different kinds of funerals, visit our funeral planning advice centre.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash