Going green — after death

Jun 18, 2019

The ritual of bidding farewell to our deceased loved ones is an important step in the mourning process. Most of us are familiar with traditional casket burials and cremation. Now, there is a third option: natural organic reduction, or human composting.

On May 21st, Washington became the first state to legalize this form of death care.

Katrina Spade, chief executive officer of Recompose, a company that helps people compost their loved ones into fertile soil, says she based her idea on a livestock mortality composting method that farmers in the US have been using for decades.

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“I found out about livestock mortality composting back when I was a grad student in architecture school. ... It had never been done for humans before, but it seemed really like a great option. So, I started to investigate what it would mean to take that agricultural process and make it feel meaningful and appropriate for humans.”

Katrina Spade, chief executive officer, Recompose

“I found out about livestock mortality composting back when I was a grad student in architecture school,” she explains. “It had never been done for humans before, but it seemed really like a great option. So, I started to investigate what it would mean to take that agricultural process and make it feel meaningful and appropriate for humans.”

To compost this way, Recompose uses natural materials like wood chips, straw and alfalfa to create the microbial activity necessary to break down the body’s organic substances.

“My favorite way to think about this process is it's almost exactly what's happening on the forest floor, as dead organic material like leaf litter, sticks, or an errant chipmunk break down and become topsoil,” Spade explains. “We're basically creating that same process, but controlling it more carefully and accelerating it by providing all the right materials and the oxygen that those microbes need.”

The process takes about a month, which includes the breakdown of bones and teeth.

The process takes about a month, which includes the breakdown of bones and teeth.

In Washington State, where Spade lives, cremation rates stand at about 78% and throughout the US cremation rates are rising. As Spade thought about what her family might do with her body when she died, she wasn’t sure whether cremation or burial held any special meaning for her.

She also found that cremation and traditional casket burial both have a significant carbon footprint. She realized she didn’t want the last gesture she would make on Earth to contribute more to its current environmental state.

Because many human bodies contain chemicals from pharmaceuticals, pathogens from disease and, in some cases, the odd bit of metal from joint replacement or other surgeries, Spade wanted to measure the impact these things could have on the soil.

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From studies of livestock composting, she already knew that antibiotics break down in the composting process. In a pilot study at the Washington State University, using donated human bodies, Spade and her colleagues discovered the same was true for pharmaceuticals, pathogens and heavy metals.

“We were able to kind of check off each of those boxes, which was not surprising,” Spade says. “We expected that result. But it was very satisfying to see that, in fact, it's a very safe process.”

A human body laid into a mixture of wood chips, straw and alfalfa will create about a cubic yard of soil. Recompose is working with conservation lands around the Puget Sound area, so if a family wants only a small amount of that soil, they can know that the rest is helping to restore forest land. Of course, if a family wants to keep all of it, that is great, too, Spade says.

Spade acknowledges that people can feel a certain level of discomfort with disposing of a loved one’s body in this way. Thinking about the care of bodies can be difficult, no matter how you do it, she says. But when it comes down to it, Spade points out, if you look closely at any death care option — embalming, cremation, or what happens to a body in a casket — they can all feel a little uncomfortable.

“I've found, personally, that thinking about death on a daily basis has really given me a lot of joy in living life,” she says. “I've been very aware over the past few years because I'm always thinking about death care itself. And that has brought me an incredible perspective about how precious life is. So, there's some beauty in talking about this stuff, but it can be very difficult.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.


From Living on Earth ©2017 World Media Foundation