Steve Weems in front of the fern leaf beech tree dedicated to his mother, Hazel Rood Weems, in his backyard Thursday. Weems wants his remains to be composted and added to ground around the tree, which is a live cutting of a tree nourished by his mother’s ashes. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Upon his death, Steve Weems wants his family to compost his remains and use them to feed his mother’s memorial tree, a beautiful fern-leaf beech that grows in the backyard of their Brunswick home.

“My dear mother passed away 28 years ago,” said Weems, a former Brunswick town councilor and solar energy advocate. “Yet her spiritual presence continues as a great source of well-being… With this tree as a daily physical reminder, she continues to provide guidance and loving comfort.”

The tree in his backyard began as a cutting from a tree that was nourished by his mother’s ashes. And Weems, a lifelong composter, would like his remains to enrich the soil around his mother’s beech as his preferred way to celebrate the cycle of life.

But it isn’t allowed under state law. Weems is among those hoping that changes soon as state lawmakers consider a bill to legalize body composting, or natural organic reduction.

The proposal, introduced by Rep. Victoria Doudera, D-Camden, would make Maine the seventh state to allow the natural organic reduction of human remains. Washington was the first to legalize this end-of-life option in 2019. Oregon, California, Vermont, Colorado, and New York soon followed.

The process works like this: The wrapped body is covered in biodegradable organic matter, such as wood chips, alfalfa or straw, and placed inside a sealed container at a state-licensed facility. After five to seven weeks, natural decomposition reduces what was placed inside to about a cubic yard of compost, which is removed and allowed to cure for another three to five weeks.


Any manmade additions to the body, like artificial knees or pacemakers, are removed at this point. Bone fragments and teeth are pulverized, as in the cremation process, and returned to the remains. What’s left is odorless, nutrient-rich soil that can be used to enrich a flower garden or forest.


Mainers who want to be composted at the end of their lives cite the environmental and spiritual advantage of natural organic reduction over burial or cremation. In other states, religious organizations have fought against the concept, saying it devalues the vessel that carries the soul.

Traditional burial and cremation take tolls on the environment despite efforts to become more sustainable.

A stone with Hazel Rood Weems’s name on it rests at the foot of the tree dedicated to her in Steve Weem’s backyard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cremating a corpse takes up to three hours of burning and releases about 600 pounds of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of driving 500 miles in a passenger car. In a typical year, burials use up about 20 million board feet of hardwoods for caskets and 4.3 million gallons of toxic embalming fluid.

Nancy Audet of Topsham wants her daughter to use her composted remains at her farmstead in Pownal where she grows fruit and vegetables and raises animals to supply food for her family. Her daughter told her she’d rather use her mother’s composted remains than bury her mother’s body.


“The idea of being turned into compost and literally becoming one with nature appeals to me on many different levels,” Audet said. “Growing up and raising my children in Maine, I have a deep and abiding love of nature – the ocean, lakes and rivers, mountains, farmland, and forests. I love it all.”

Deirdre Sulka Meister of Portland started researching end-of-life options after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013. She’s done some things on her bucket list, like learning to paint and building a wall, she said. She has had to give up on others, like getting a black belt in Aikido.

“There is one thing on my bucket list that I would like for after I die: to return to the earth in the most ecological way possible,” Sulka Meister said. “Natural organic reduction seems like the best option for me, from both an environmental and spiritual perspective.”

She hopes she can live long enough to die knowing her body can feed the planet that has sustained her.

Debra McDonough of Scarborough said science guided her to decide she wants her remains composted.

“I am by training a biologist,” she told lawmakers. “I believe that the molecules currently serving as an essential component of my own body are also an essential component of the broader nutrient cycle – a cycle that is disrupted by many of the common funerary practices.”


Doudera also thinks Mainers will appreciate the extra little bit of freedom this bill would offer them.

“Consumer choice: To me, that is the crux of this bill,” Doudera said. “Natural organic reduction appeals to anyone with a deep connection to the land and a desire for more funeral options for themselves and their family. Farmers have used mortality composting for many decades.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said natural organic reduction poses no threat to the environment or public health, so long as it’s done right and by licensed practitioners, according to  testimony on Doudera’s bill. If the bill passed, DHHS would write regulations to govern the new process.

Its major concern was financial: It insisted the bill include funding to hire someone to oversee licensing.

The heat generated by the microbial activity inside the container – at least 131 degrees over three days – kills most viruses, pathogens and bacteria. In Washington, only the remains of those who died from rare infectious diseases, like Creutzfeldt-Jakob or Ebola, are barred from natural organic reduction.

Prices vary from state to state, but a simple composting by the first Washington company to offer this as a commercial service starts at $7,000. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, a typical U.S. cremation costs $6,970. A casket and burial costs $7,848, minus a headstone and plot maintenance.


No one testified against Doudera’s bill, but a broader bill died in committee last session after lawmakers raised unanswered questions about the environmental impact of the disposal of the remains. Since then, state agencies have dismissed such concerns, and New York passed its natural reduction law last year.

Doudera’s bill, L.D. 536, was endorsed by the Health and Human Services Committee, 8-5, in April. The committee Republicans opposed it. Rep. Ann Fredericks, R-Sanford, said she worried it could pose a risk to public health. Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, said she just wasn’t ready for the concept.

But Republicans have not appeared to target the bill during floor votes; it passed under the gavel with no opposition during first-round votes in the House or Senate earlier this month. It must still get enactment votes in both chambers and, most notably, be granted funding by the appropriations committee.

Analysts pegged the cost at about $100,000 a year for an environmental specialist to enforce state rules.

A spokesman for Gov. Janet Mills didn’t respond to questions about her position on the bill.

Steve Weems walks past the fern leaf beech tree dedicated to his mother, Hazel Rood Weems, in his backyard on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer



Faith-based communities have objected to human composting bills in other states. In New York, which legalized the practice last year but is still writing regulations, the Catholic Church called it inappropriate, saying its teachings prohibit the spreading of composted human remains as garden fertilizer.

“Human bodies are not household waste; they are vessels of the soul,” said Dennis Poust, director of the New York State Catholic Conference, in January after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed New York’s law. “(We) do not believe the process meets the standard of reverent treatment of earthly remains.”

The Catholic Diocese of Portland has not weighed in on the issue in Maine, on this bill or the last, and a spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Doudera’s bill.

Peter Wiley, a 15-year Brunswick resident, realizes some may find the concept weird or undignified. For him, however, the idea of being folded back into the organic life cycle is spiritually appealing. He said it conforms to his Christian view of what should happen to our bodies when we die.

“Returning my body to nature is perhaps the most dignified option with respect to this planet,” he said. “There are folks who might oppose this bill on religious grounds, but as a Christian, I find comfort in the Bible’s repeated reminders that we’re all just made of this earth.”

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