No one thinks twice about the benefits of composting yard and garden remains. But eyebrows may shoot up when the conversation turns to composting human remains. It is nevertheless the newest alternative to traditional burial in Washington State, the first state to legalize “aboveground decomposition,” the legal description for using wood chips and straw to help a human body return its basic elements to the earth.
Unlike traditional burial in a steel coffin and concrete vault, in composting the chemical elements that make up our bodies are not locked away forever. Nor are they reduced to a few handsful of powder and bone as in cremation. You might say that composting is the above-ground equivalent of “green burial,” in which bodies are buried in light wood or cardboard coffins or a simple shroud.
In environmental terms, composting may be the most earth-friendly of all, since all of the elements are returned to the earth in just a few weeks time and no permanent space is required. Even green burial generally includes a dedicated burial plot that is unavailable for anything other than growing grass. With land in increasingly short supply, this is becomes a more important consideration.
The impetus behind all of this is a Seattle company called Recompose. It has developed a process in which the body is placed in a container along with wood chips and straw, which help speed its transition into rich soil that can then be used for planting. And if that sounds familiar, it should; it’s the method many farmers and ranchers have used for years when cows, pigs and other animals die. It is also a literal enactment of the “dust to dust” notion that propels so many of our death rituals.
Recompose founder Katrina Spade developed the idea and managed to jumpstart her company, a public benefit corporation, while pushing the concept through the Washington State legislature and onto Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. He signed the measure in May 2019 and it will go into effect one year later, perhaps giving Spade time to get everything in place before her first clients show up.
When things are up and running, Spade expects to be able to turn bodies into compost for about $5,000, according to a recent New York Times article. If they wish, the nutrient-rich soil can be returned to the loved ones for use in a garden or to plant a tree in memory of the deceased. In terms of cost, it’s a bit more expensive than a simple cremation but less than traditional burials and perhaps on a par with green burial.
Spade says she developed the idea while studying urban burial as an architecture student while writing a master’s thesis on urban burial. She has assembled a team of legal, financial and business advisers as well as what we might call funeral gurus. Perhaps the best known is Caitlin Doughty, a licensed mortician in California and author of the best-selling “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.”
A potential alternative to Spade’s process is so-called “liquid cremation.” Technically known as alkaline hydrolysis, it uses pressure, chemicals, water, and heat to dispose of remains. This is a greener method than traditional cremation but is not without controversy and whether it wins widespread acceptance is doubtful.