It has been five years since Katrina Spade composted her first human body. With her pushing and lobbying, Washington state is now the first in the US to legally offer an alternative to burial or cremation: “above-ground decomposition,” also known as “natural organic reduction.” Turing your corpse into soil, in other words.
In 2017, Spade started Recompose, a Seattle-based human composting company, to carry out the service for any client willing and able to spend $5,500, which is still much cheaper than most funerals.
For Spade, the business is about fighting climate change. In America, cemeteries take up an estimated 1 million acres of land; caskets destroy 4 million acres of forest every year; and burials use 30 million boards of wood and over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. According to Troy Hottle, a sustainability analyst and advisor to Recompose, the carbon dioxide saved by composting one human comes to between 0.84 and 1.4 metric tons. One metric ton is equivalent to burning 1,102 pounds (500 kilograms) of coal or driving about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) in a passenger car.
The Washington bill took effect earlier this year, just in time for Recompose to begin accepting its first bodies in November. I sat down with Spade to talk about the mechanics of human composting, its environmental impact, and whether it will ever catch on.
Q: You were the first person to pursue composting human bodies as a business. How did you figure out how to do it?
A: I wasn’t interested in being buried in the conventional manner. It occurred to me that cremation is a destruction of whatever we have left when we die. All the nutrients left in our body are incinerated when you’re cremated, and I thought: “This doesn’t fit with the way I want to do things.”
As I was thinking about this, my friend called me. She asked if I’d heard of the farmers that composted whole cows. This is a practice that’s been happening for decades in the US on farms. I had a bit of an epiphany: if you can compost a cow, you can probably compost a human body. I started to take those principles that farmers have been using and apply them to a death-care system for humans.
Q: You’re set to receive your first bodies in November. How are you feeling about that?
A: We’ve done a pilot in conjunction with Washington State University where we welcomed six human bodies and converted those bodies into soil. So this won’t be the first time this has happened in the world. I’m very confident—I want to say in technology, but really, it’s nature doing its job. I’ve seen it happen many times before, so mostly I’m excited. Certainly a little bit nervous.
Q: You started thinking about death care when you were in graduate school for architecture. How did that happen?
A: I had been enamored with composting for some time. Before architecture school, I went to design school and studied permaculture [designing in tandem with nature in a sustainable way]. Then in graduate school, because I had just turned 30 and because I had young children, I started to feel my mortality. I decided to look at the American funeral industry because I was curious what I would do with my body when I die.
Q: What were you thinking at the time?
A: I grew up in a rural setting and moved to my first city when I was 18. I knew that I would always live in a city. I prefer the urban living, the urban lifestyle, and yet had the sense that when I died, I would have a natural burial without embalming, without a fancy casket, etc. I thought: “How interesting [that] as an urban dweller I would want my body to be brought to nature after death.” It’s kind of a weird paradox. In thinking about how important nature is to us in grieving or in being mortal, I started to wonder what death care would look like in the city if it were really tied to nature.
Q: What’s the composting process at Recompose?
A: Each body goes into an individual vessel, which is like a cone container, and it’s laid onto wood chips, alfalfa, and straw—this nice mixture of natural materials—and covered with more of the same. The body is kind of cocooned, and it stays in that vessel for 30 days. As it’s there, microbes are breaking down the body and breaking down the wood chips, alfalfa, and straw to create this beautiful soil. We will have 10 of those units to begin. We’ll be able to welcome 10 bodies per month.
Q: What’s the Recompose space like?
A: We’ve actually made quite a few changes since the covid pandemic started back in March. We had been working on this beautiful warehouse space in Seattle, and when the pandemic hit, the rug was pulled from under us funding-wise. The main adjustment we made was to decide to open a much smaller, scaled-down facility to start, which I think is probably a wise thing to do, but it was a bit of a disappointment. The vessel system is the same—it’s an array of 10 vessels in their hexagonal frame, so it looks a little bit like a beehive. But the space we open in November is a small warehouse. Our goal is to then open a larger facility next year that families can visit.
Q: As this pandemic continues, how are people thinking differently about death?
A: It feels like all of us in the world are even more aware of our own mortality right now. If you’re thinking about the fact that you will someday die and your loved ones will die, you might be more interested in considering what happens to your body and a last gift you can give back to the planet. My personal opinion is that everyone should be planning for their end of life early and often. A silver lining of the pandemic is people are doing that more. A lot of the momentum for this project was based on the climate crisis. Our process saves a metric ton of carbon dioxide over cremation or conventional burial. For a lot of people this is not just about creating soil, which is a critical resource, but also mitigating the harm we’re doing through our funeral practices. The pandemic has jostled or distracted from the climate crisis, but I sense that people are coming back around and realizing we still have to focus our energies there. In a perfect world we’d both continue to recognize our mortality and then bring back our energies to the climate crisis.
Q: People who die of covid-19 can’t be composted, right?
A: No, they can be. Natural organic reduction in the human destroys pathogens through heat created by the microbial activity. This form of disposition has been proven to destroy coronaviruses by heat in a really relatively short period of time. By law, the process must sustain temperatures of 131 °F [55 °C] for 72 hours. Coronaviruses in particular have been shown to be destroyed in about 30 minutes by those temperatures.
Q: I didn’t realize that. I was under the impression that if someone dies of an infectious disease, they can’t be naturally composted.
A: We have two instances where a person would be a non-candidate. Ebola is one. It’s so incredibly infectious that the CDC recommends direct cremation. The other disease is a prion disease such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has not yet been shown to be destroyed by composting. But in terms of just general infectious diseases, natural organic reduction does an excellent job of destroying those pathogens.
Q: People can take the soil home, right?
A: Yeah. Recompose has this partnership with Bells Mountain, a 700-acre [283-hectare] conservation trust. It’s mostly forest that was improperly logged in the 1930s, and it’s still recovering from that. Our first offer is: “Hey, we’re creating a cubic yard of soil per person—that’s quite a lot. Of course, you can absolutely have all of it, but if you want, here’s a forest that needs it.” I suspect many families will take a small box home and use it to nourish their rose garden or a tree that they love, but that hopefully many would like to donate that soil to this conservation land.
Q: Can Recompose reach people who are less environmentally conscious?
A: Most people want to be able to choose what happens to their own body and their loved ones’ bodies. When you’re talking about choice around the end of life, that resonates for a lot of different types of folks. We found here in Washington, for example, farmers on the eastern side of the state really get this. They are using a similar practice for their farm animals, and they love their soil, and they understand the cycles of life probably better than most.
Q: How can people still retain traditions around death—such as visiting cemetery plots and scattering ashes—with natural organic reduction?
A: There’s a lot of similarities to scattering ashes, but for some it resonates deeper to have this productive, meaningful use of the soil you’ve created.
Q: Are you going to compost your body?
A: Yes. I’m definitely planning to become soil someday, but hopefully not for a while. I still have a lot to do.