With the 'death positive' movement gaining traction, the concept of human remains becoming fertile soil for future life feels — strangely — pleasant.
Death comes to everyone of us at some point, and it is never easy. If cemeteries and funeral homes make you uncomfortable, try having your body covered with dirt and microbes so that it may be turned into mulch.
The concept of human remains becoming fertile soil for new life is very pleasant.
Recompose, a composting funeral home, is now up for business after a decade of planning and fundraising, as well as a successful attempt to modify Washington state law.
The warehouse-like structure, which got its first corpse in December, resembles a big honeycomb. A lengthy tube loaded with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw makes up each hexagon form. The human remains are buried there. When organic material-eating bacteria are added, the human body transforms into a big box of mulch.
Composting, also known as "natural organic reduction," takes approximately a month and costs $5,500. Families can either find a natural home for the bones or have them sent to the Bells Mountain conservation area in southern Washington through Recompose.
Despite “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” being a recurring theme in many funeral ceremonies, composting human remains was not a legal form of body disposal until recently, when Recompose founder Katrina Spade undertook the cause.
In recent years, attitudes toward death are shifting as what is being dubbed the “death positive” movement takes hold.
Recompose sponsored a 2018 Washington State University study to determine the safety and effectiveness of composting human remains. Six subjects were composted during the five-month study. They found that the process met the EPA standards for composting facilities in Washington state. And, when measuring the resulting material, toxins like arsenic and lead stayed below the EPA limits.
Spade’s efforts convinced the state of Washington to be the first to legalize human composting. The new rule went into effect in May 2020 and allows for “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains into soil.”
So far, there are three facilities in the state licensed to perform natural organic reduction, including Recompose, natural burial cemetery Herland Forest, and Return Home (which expects to open next year), according to KTLA.
“This is simply another option at a time when people feel they have no options,” Walt Patrick, the steward at Herland Forest, told KOIN 6 News. “You know, death has intervened and changed your life forever. How can you do something at least to make it the way you want?”
In recent years, views around death have shifted as the "death positive" movement has gained traction. The new viewpoint tries to rethink death through new rituals or methods of memorialization.
For example, certified death doulas help people make peace with death. Before the pandemic, “death cafes” were increasingly popping up around the country. Included in that movement are innovative and sometimes unorthodox ways to dispose of a body — everything from building your own coffin to being turned into an “eternal reef” by having your remains mixed into the cement of an artificial reef that supports marine life.
Recompose not only fits in with the movement, but also makes the case for composting human remains. Human composting has been shown in studies to be an energy-efficient and "green" approach to dispose of human remains.
Recompose says that one metric ton of CO2 is saved for every person composted instead of cremated — about the same amount a gas-powered vehicle emits in 3 months. And Earther reports that the composting footprint is less than the toxic chemicals used in embalming, or the carbon dioxide and pollutants emitted during cremation.