Human Composting Interview

Tom Gilbert owner of Black Dirt Farm in Stannard, Vermont gives a quick overview of what composting humans in Vermont might look like. Human Composting has recently been made legal in Washington State and it won’t be long before other States follow suit. There are many considerations and by no means is this interview the extent of Gilbert’s knowledge or thoughts regarding human composting. This is however, a good start to the conversation.

Human Composting Interview with Black Dirt Farm
By Anne-Marie Keppel of Corpus Compost, Stardust Meadow & Village Deathcare

Do you feel like most people in Vermont are familiar with composting enough to not
completely flinch at the idea of human composting? Or, do you think this prospect would
confuse or scare them?

Gilbert: I think vermonters have a high degree of composting literacy, however human composting is more of a cultural stretch and less of an intellectual issue. I do think its a very doable sell but would require a thoughtful communication strategy. I think the main issue, almost bigger than the ick factor, is the immediate idea that it would be disrespectful. I think this is, again, something that can be overcome once you have more dialogue with folks and they understand how it is done, and how much more respectful it is than cremation…..

Many farmers have composted their farm animals so they understand the concept of
composting living beings. Have you composted large animals before?

Gilbert: I have composted hundreds of large animals, be it individual mortalities to hundreds of cows from barn fires. Many farmers compost their dead animals and it is now considered best practice. In fact, for many highly communicable diseases, composting is now, nationally and internationally, considered to be the best strategy….. things like Avian Flu, Hoof and Mouth, etc….. It is very manageable. (There are other considerations for humans)

What is different about composting left over foods verses large or small animals? Is
there a higher acidity or temperature needed to compost an animal?

Gilbert: Yes, very much so. The actual composting process itself is the same fundamentally, but the process management is different since you are dealing with a whole body (a very large particle) versus much smaller particles, which are more easily homogenized in a mix. As a result of dealing with a whole body, you are essentially managing a period of time when there is controlled rotting, as opposed to active composting….. The hog and poultry industries often overcome this by grinding the carcasses first. Obviously you wouldn’t want to do this with a human body. But, again, very manageable.

You operate a worm farm. I’m an amateur when it comes to worm food, yet a common
term people use when someone dies is that they “become worm food.” I’m guessing that
an animal would be too much for an earthworm to start to break down… But they would
probably enjoy the composition once it is broken down to soil… Does this sound right?

Gilbert: Well, we do both windrow (piles, high temps, bacterially driven) composting and worm composting. You would want to use a high temp, bacterially driven pile system. You could do it with worms in theory but it would require a different, less proven process. Either way, worms would come in at the end of the process on their own and contribute to the finishing process.

Do you worry about wild or domestic animals digging up the composting animal? And,
have you ever had any instances where this was an issue?

Gilbert: You have to consider this issue and especially so when it comes to a person. Yes, dogs will dig into a pile that is not well built. If the pile is well built, its typically not an issue. In fact, with some farms I have worked with, composting reduced predator pressure on buried carcasses. I think with human composting some sort of exclusion structure around the pile would make sense.

Have you ever been asked if you could/would compost a human? I know that legally,
you would not be able to for a lot of reasons, but have you ever had this conversation
with anyone before?

Gilbert: Yes, several times. Specifically, one process sticks out for me – I was originally contacted by an elder about 12-13 years ago to compost them when they died. Ultimately he asked I not do it for fear of my own legal liability, but for him it was the way he wanted to be honored. We became good friends and upon his death I stayed with his body through the cremation process. It was actually very sad to me to see him cremated because that process greatly lacks intimacy and is so industrial it felt like a dishonor to the spiritual being that he was. I think anyone who flinches at the idea of human composting and thinks it disrespectful, might want to actually see a cremation first hand. There is NOTHING sacred about it. Not only is it industrial, it crazy energy intensive and must have some air pollution impact…. To me, composting is a form of sky burial. Its a final gift, and its a sacred reuniting of the body with the earth…..

Since Human Composting has made front page news across the US has this discussion
become more regular in your farming circles? Has anyone told you that they would be
interested in this if it was offered in Vermont?

Gilbert: No, I don’t hear about this among farmers. They/ we have too many other more pressing issues to consider with our farms in mind. I think this will come out of the death and dying circles. I think dedicated places and people will and should do the work, not farmers per se. I think the neo-Pagan reclaiming circles, Buddhists and others already focused on sacred dying will be the early adopters and the folks that will advance this. The biggest issue will be figuring out the logistics and specifics of where and in what way.

Disclaimer: This photo is not mine, if you have rights to it and would like it removed, please message me.

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