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The problem of human composting and prayers for people who think we should make it OK — Father James Lentini

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A Scout lights candles on All Saints' Day Nov. 1, 2019, during a tribute for departed soldiers at a cemetery in Taguig, Philippines. On All Saintsí Day, Nov. 1, the church celebrates the men and women, known and unknown, who are in communion with God in heaven. (CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters)

By Father James Lentini
Pastor, Holy Cross Parish, Dover

In 1973, the American movie-going public was treated to the likes of a dystopian future in the movie “Soylent Green.” The film, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, told the future of an earth dealing with a host of problems that were topped off by food shortages. To address the food shortages, the Soylent Corporation began producing a nutritious, tasty product that was able to feed the masses — it took the form of a wafer-like food called “Soylent Green.” It proved popular with the people and was in demand.

It’s People! During the course of the movie, we find that perhaps to limit population or quash riots, people are rounded up (literally scooped up in trash-like vehicles). Also, people who are older are encouraged to allow themselves to be euthanized. The big revelation, however, comes at the end of the movie when we find that “soylent green” is made of people — the people scooped-up, those who were euthanized, and those who die in any way. People are eating other people. Or, as the lead character in the movie declared: “Soylent Green is people!” The rationale for the product Soylent Green would be that these people are dead anyway — this makes the dead useful. They can be processed into food to feed other people.

It’s History. During the era of Nazi Germany’s tyrannical overrunning of Europe, Jews and others were rounded-up, and millions upon millions were put to death in concentration camps and similar facilities. With a plethora of dead bodies around, the Nazis, like the powers-that-be in “Soylent Green,” decided that the dead could be made useful — i.e., a utilitarian philosophy was put into morbid practice. Thus, the dead bodies of victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jewish people) had hair and gold teeth/fillings removed. The gold was melted down and enriched German finances, while the hair was sold to businesses to make many products, including rope and mattresses. Additionally, in 2006, the Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against the Polish Nation found that human fat removed from victims of the Holocaust was used to make soap.

Sinful Utilitarianism. Why was this done? To reiterate my comments about “Soylent Green:” the rationale would be that these people are dead anyway — let’s make the dead useful. They can be processed into soap, mattresses, rope, etc.

Father James Lentini at the Chrism Mass on April 12, 2022, at Church of the Holy Cross in Dover. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

Story and History. Above, I just gave two examples of using the bodies of the dead, by way of a utilitarian nightmare, in a way that made them “useful.” The logic would be that the body of a person has no intrinsic worth; it only has worth when it can be made “useful”— and indeed, to the sick mind, should be made “useful.” The two examples I used are distinct in that one came from fiction, and the other, sadly, comes from the sad but real history of man’s inhumanity to man.

Right Here. There is a new example of this urge to make the dead “useful” by way of another utilitarian nightmare. This one doesn’t come from fiction, it doesn’t come from history — it comes from the Delaware legislature, from your representatives, your “leaders.” This new example is known as human composting. (This bill, House Bill 162, allowing human composting, has passed the Delaware House of Representatives and at this writing is awaiting consideration in the state Senate.)

Human Composting. Basically, what human composting means is that when a person dies, instead of having their body buried or cremated and then interred, it can be composted. It can be put through a several weeks-long process that turns the human body into soil. The soil can then be put into the ground to provide nutrients to the existing soil (kind of like a fertilizer). Thus, the human body has worth, not because God created it, but because it is useful. Those who support this horror show refer to it being “green,” those who see how this process treats human life as garbage realize that this “human composting” is not a “green” initiative — it is a “Soylent Green” initiative.

Concerns. Human composting presents several problems for us — not just as Catholics — but as human beings, as human beings who believe that each person has a dignity imbued on them by the creator.

People Aren’t Products. Thus, when it comes to the human body, we cannot be utilitarian. We fought a Civil War in this country to make clear that human beings can never be reckoned as a “product” or “property.” Human beings and their remains have worth because they are given life, given a rational soul, and given the image and likeness of God by God. The human body is not precious because it is useful; it is precious because of its Creator, and it is precious because it reflects God. Human composting seeks to make the bodies of men and women “useful” by rendering them as products to be used rather than seen as creations made in the image and likeness of God to be treated with dignity.

People Have Innate Dignity. Mankind, which is able to come to know, love, and serve God, is the greatest of God’s creation. Man is created to subdue nature, to be a good steward of nature, and to master nature. We are not called to worship nature or see nature as an end in and of itself.  Thus, human remains — unlike the remains of dead animals, insects, trees, and plants — are to be treated in a manner reflective of their innate dignity

Do Whatever You Want? I would imagine those who support “Human Composting” might argue: can’t one do whatever he or she wants with his/her body in death? The answer to that is no. For example, one cannot take the body of a deceased person, hack it up, and spread the body parts on a lawn. Or, in the name of “being green,” we can’t hang it on a tree in front of our house and let the birds feed off of it. Thus, today, and throughout history, authorities have regulated and limited the manner in which a body may be laid to rest.

Primary Effect, Secondary Effect. Another argument, perhaps made in favor of human composting, might be: shouldn’t people return to the earth in death? When a person dies and is, for example, buried — yes, eventually, that person will decompose (naturally), but the purpose of that “return to dust” is not to unite the deceased with nature. While that might happen eventually, in the physical sense, this is a secondary effect. The primary effect of what we do in burial is to create a resting place for the remains of a child of God, treating the bodily remains with respect and a place for them to be remembered and memorialized by future generations.

Pope Francis holds a bouquet of white roses as he visits the graves of members of Commonwealth military units who died during and immediately after World War II and now rest in the Rome War Cemetery where the pope celebrated Mass Nov. 2, 2023, the feast of All Souls. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A Word on Cremation. It might also be asked: Human composting isn’t really any different than cremation, right? Well, yes, it is different. Cremation, while not exhorted but rather allowed by the Church, is permitted (preferably after a funeral) for the bodies of the dead. But those created remains are to be treated like bodily remains; that is, they are to be interred — not scattered like dirt or stored in a house like a souvenir. People’s remains are not to be treated like trinkets or products. These remains are the remains of God’s special creation, humankind.

The Voice of the Church. Over time, the Church has weighed in —in a universal manner— on the topic of the special importance of humankind — of people. Making clear, that special care must be taken with human life — from conception to natural death. And making clear the manner in which we must treat the remains of a human being. In this, the Church has been a prolific writer.

Humanae Vitae. In the encyclical Humane Vitae in 1968, Pope St. Paul VI, propounded some key insights into the way we deal with human beings: (HV #23:) “No statement of a problem and no solution to it is acceptable which does violence to man’s essential dignity” He also wrote, (HV #17) “We must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body …, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.”

The Catechism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in more explicit terms, states that (CCC #2300) “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. the burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”

 Ad Resurgendum cum Christo. In the 2020 Instruction, Ad Resurgendum cum Christo (a document regarding the treatment of human remains) it was that the Church (#4) “cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe…Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed…”

 Fratelli Tutti. In Fratelli Tutti, (#213) Pope Francis wrote that “[The] human being possesses an inalienable dignity is a truth that corresponds to human nature apart from all cultural change. For this reason, human beings have the same inviolable dignity in every age of history and no one can consider himself or herself authorized by particular situations to deny this conviction or to act against it.

Scripture. Scripture affirms man’s unique place in creation: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female* he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Lamenting. With this in mind, I lament, with the heart of the Church, the promotion of human composting — the promotion of rendering our beloved departed into products. Human composting, a degrading (literally) of the dignity and worth of the remains of a child of God, is yet another way our society says, ‘we don’t believe in the resurrection of the body… so there!’ It is a move to say that the best thing we can do in death is become mulch.

Not Green, Soylent Green. We must pray, long and hard, that hearts and minds can be changed on this move toward legalizing human composting in Delaware (or anywhere). I commend you to speak to your neighbors, your legislators, your friends in other faiths, and above all, your family. Right now, only six states and the nation of Sweden (in a different manner) allow this practice — and that’s already too many. Remember the divine image and likeness that we bear, and see to it that it is treated with the dignity it deserves. And to reiterate: This initiative isn’t green; it is Soylent Green — it’s people! Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Father James Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover in the Diocese of Wilmington.