A bill to allow Californians to choose to be composted after death, along with cremation and burial options, was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom earlier this week.
Assembly Bill 351, authored by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), will require the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau within the Department of Consumer Affairs to license and regulate natural organic reduction (NOR), which places bodies of the deceased in a container with woodchips and other organic material and has them decompose into soil over around a month. The Bureau will also have NOR facilities to pay fees for every body reduction, as well as licensing and renewal fees.
Under the bill, the California Department of Public Health would create standards for NORs and approve all reduction facilities in the state. Local registrars would also add “reduced human remains” to the list of body dispositions on permits, along with cremation and burial.
AB 351 is set to go into law on January 1, 2027.
Assemblywoman Garcia wrote the bill to give an environmentally more friendly burial option compared to cremation, which releases 534 pounds of carbon into the air every cremation, or around 360,000 metric tons of carbon each year from the US alone. Specifically, Garcia noted that during the pandemic, when Los Angeles County suspended air quality standards and emissions for funeral homes that cremated bodies, carbon emissions went drastically up, an alternative was badly needed due to the higher air pollution. With the passage of AB 351, she argued that the more environmentally friendly option would help combat climate change and sea-level rise.
“AB 351 will provide an additional option for California residents that is more environmentally-friendly and gives them another choice for burial,” said Assemblywoman Garcia in a statement. “With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere. For each individual who chooses NOR over conventional burial or cremation, the process saves the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon from entering the environment.”
Opposition to AB 351
“The process reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity. NOR uses essentially the same process as a home gardening composting system,” noted California Catholic Conference executive director Kathleen Domingo on Monday. “The process was developed for livestock, not humans. These methods of disposal were used to lessen the possibility of disease being transmitted by the dead carcass. Using these same methods for the transformation of human remains can create an unfortunate spiritual, emotional and psychological distancing from the deceased.”
Sarah Caulfield, a funeral director in Southern California, added, “These kinds of funerals do not give comfort to a lot of people. So the body becomes soil – to many they have images of people walking on it and things. It doesn’t make people feel good about what they did. It is part of the circle of life, but Garcia completely forgot about the most important factor in this: the human connection. She’s thinking in terms of carbon emissions, which I concede is a good point, but she did not explain it in a human way. You know, in a way that comforts people who lost a loved one.”
“She could have easily provided a statement, a paragraph even, giving a heart to heart about how good this would be for the deceased to become part of the earth or something. It wouldn’t convince many, but she would at least look human. Instead, she went this route, and made a lot of people mad in the process. This is only going to be an option now, but if her intention was to get a lot of people to do this, her way of explaining this has turned a lot of people off to it, at least for now. She was using logic for this. She forgot that you also needed a heart.”
Following the bill signing, California became the 5th state in the country to legalize NOR burials following Washington state, Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont.
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