Becoming Earth

A burial is a ritual that creates a communal space for mourning. But it does more than that, too. A burial is also a ritual that allows us to say something about who we are, what we value, and who we are connected with. We might practice a burial ritual in the wake of a death, but they are never isolated from how we live, and think. Rather, they symbolize who–and what–we want to become. They reveal our dreams. Burial rituals are shaped by life, and give shape to life. They challenge us to think beyond the dualism of life-versus-death and to think, instead, about the sisterhood between life and death: about the lifedeath that shapes our earth bodies.

When we bury our loved ones in expensive coffins made of earth elements that are difficult to acquire and produce, and place them in cement vaults that are impermeable to the elements, and preserve their bodies with a fluid to prevent decay, this sends a message that we are people who are disconnected from (or even resent) the cycles of nature. It illuminates a desire to make material wealth permanent.

Against this view of who we are, I want to invoke a series of artworks called “Shelf Life” by Krista Dragomer. The images, in watercolor, are a riotous and colorful vision of bodies both vegetal and human. Breasts and beets blend together on the page, and it’s clear that these bodies are not only connected, but being undone by one another. What you see, however,  is not morbid or grotesque. Rather, I would describe it as prophetic. It shows us a vision of our future; it illuminates the fact that we are always in the process of becoming earth. Krista explains the series, in her own words:

“I created the series ‘Shelf Life’ during the isolation of summer of 2020. Compost collection had been suspended in New York City, so I kept my food scraps in the freezer, hauling these frozen bundles to various community gardens and farmers market collections at the end of the week. The frozen scraps, beautiful in their diversity of colors and forms, took on a new kind of presence, an accounting of my movement through my weeks alone, a meditation on the conceptual boundaries between inside and outside. I was also, during this time, teaching an online drawing series called Drawing on the Senses and had set up mirrors for a class on self-portraits. Catching images of my own sweating, eating, transforming body in the mirror alongside the defrosting assemblages of compost I’d pulled out of the freezer to draw, the drawings merged. As I observed all the bodies leaking and becoming more fragrant, commingling in my senses and our shared atmosphere, drawing us all together became an acknowledgement of corporeal kinship and the transient nature of the identities we attach to our bodies of food and flesh.”

For years, the green burial movement has been helping people actualize their desire to return to the earth when their life is over. Over the past several years a new form of green burial–human composting–has been helping people practice a whole new method of returning to the earth. It’s a ritual that’s designed for urban areas, where land for underground burial is scarce.  The first state to legalize the process was Washington, and this is also where the original human composting facility–Recompose–has been doing advocacy and education about the process. Their description of it–recomposition–is more musical and imaginative than human composting. Since 2020 there have been a host of other states to follow suit (Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York). There are currently six other states where legislation to approve the process has been introduced (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Maine).

Recomposition has gotten a lot of positive press. In a country like the United States, where a majority of burials are now cremations, the recomposition process appears to be something like a hybrid of cremation and what’s often called natural burial (in a vessel below the ground). It’s difficult to imagine hard opposition to it. But there has been some. When the bill was up for debate in New York, the state’s Catholic Conference argued that composting is a method of waste disposal and, as they put it, “human bodies are not household waste.” Humans are not trash, in other words.

In conversation with these ideas and images, I want to put forward four theses on human composting. These are four ways in which the recomposition process can be a ritual not just for mourning those who have gone, but also–at the same time–to help us celebrate our living earth bodies, and to remember that perhaps there is no such thing as trash in the first place:

  1. We are like vegetal forms of being that root, and rot, and ripen. While it may be the case that it’s long been considered an insult to liken someone to an animal (to dehumanize them by animalizing them) it is arguably even more insulting to liken them to a vegetal form of life. Indeed, to call someone a vegetable is often another way of saying they have become a form of the living dead. And yet there is so much about our life process that resonates with the many plants that root and give fruit. At our best, we can become skilled at putting down roots, even in difficult soil. Being rooted enough to provide shade and shelter for others is among the greatest gifts we can give, in community. And the fruits we bear—the fruits that we are—are always in an ongoing process of ripening. Yes, this gives way to rot. But that moment of decay is never permanent, it gives way to fruit again. Why not celebrate our vegetal resonance?

  1. What nurtures decays, and what decays nurtures. We are fed by human bodies, when we are small. As we grow, we learn to eat the fruit and the roots of plants. These forms of life—human and vegetal—give of themselves to keep us alive. They nurture us. Nothing is permanent—no form or source of nurture. It’s all fragile, and contingent. It all decays. But perhaps we should give decay its due—perhaps we should be better at recognizing how necessary various forms of decay are to our very survival, to our ability to nurture and be nurtured. We could even say that there’s a particular form of care or nurture in decay.

  1. We come from the earth (the dirt) and will be held by it. The ritual process of making human bodies into earth again is not a way of making them into waste, or trash. Rather, it’s a way of returning them to their point of origin, to the place that originally held them before they could walk or think: before they became human. Even the biblical tradition recognizes that, at some primordial point in time, human beings were made from the dirt. This is what the second creation narrative in the book of Genesis explains to us. God took some earth and, as a sculptor works with clay, made a little person out of it. He breathed the breath of life into it, and the rest was (human) history. This origin in earth, in dirt, is a part of the story that (for many today) has long been disavowed and forgotten. But the story is still there, and it can be recovered.  We can still remember how the earth held us, and will hold us.

  1. Maybe there is no such thing as trash, just things in transition. Burial methods have always been a form of disposal. But this doesn’t mean that they’ve never been sacred. I can only imagine that, when the first burial occurred, those who undertook the ritual were solemn and sorrowful. They knew that what they were doing was returning a beloved to the earth. There has been much speculation on why it is that neanderthals appear to have buried their dead with flowers. Were they already practicing rituals that illuminate ongoingness? I won’t pretend to have a definitive answer. There’s no way for us to know what passed through the minds and the hearts of the people who performed these ancient burials in deep time. But nevertheless, I can only imagine that the flowers allowed them to express—ritually and symbolically—a dimension of the ongoingness that they saw in the world around them. I doubt—with every skeptical bone in my body—that they were just throwing someone away. Indeed, they must have known something that most of us today have forgotten: there is no such thing as trash. Nothing “goes away.” Nothing disappears. There is no magic that takes away a thing called trash. Rather, there are only things in states of recomposition.

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