It’s a subject some are too squeamish to discuss, but death does come to us all. And when it does, there are options: cremation, crypts, embalming, coffin or shroud burials. An Italian company is designing an egg-shaped, biodegradable pod to be planted like a seed with a body inside and a tree planted above it (https://www.capsulamundi.it/en/project/). There’s even a “mushroom burial suit” on the market that will let mycelia and fungi do what they do best, decompose organic material. https://www.ted.com/talks/jae_rhim_lee_my_mushroom_burial_suit
The funeral industry has faced growing concerns about the environmental impact of traditional burials, such as embalming with formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can leach into soil and the water table, and mercury and particulate emissions from crematoriums.
But Katrina Spade and her Washington State-based public benefit corporation called Recompose may have invented the ideal solution: human composting. It’s both a new technology and ancient as Earth itself. “There’s something incredibly beautiful about the practicalities of nature,” she told me in a recent interview. “The way that nature creates new life by creating new soil is a process that all lives on this planet depend on. It’s the regeneration of life through death in nature.”
THE RECOMPOSE PROCESS
The state of Washington legalized “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” Partnering with Washington State University, Recompose facilitated a successful research trial using human remains (all volunteers) that helped convince legislators to create the state law, which goes into effect in May 2020. And Colorado has just announced it will propose a similar bill.
Spade says their process is “based on a form of composting that farmers have used for decades called livestock mortality composting. It’s about finding the right ratio of carbon and nitrogen that makes microbes the happiest. We’re creating a similar environment to the forest floor, where you’ve got different materials, dead organic materials, leaves, and sticks and your occasional chipmunk, all of it being broken down by microbial and bacterial activity to create soil.”
Recompose’s month-long thermophyllic process happens at temperatures from 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The micro-organisms that create the heat are already in the carbon-nitrogen material mix and our bodies, with no chemicals added.
“Inside our vessels we lay a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw,” she continued. “We put the body on top of a bed of these materials then fill the vessel with more of it. The microbial and bacterial activity end up creating soil.” Non-organic material such as dental fillings, stents or titanium joints are screened out after the compost is finished.
Spade explains that, “For the first week, everything inside the vessel is still, the body lies there, and the microbial activity starts right away on its own. At certain times during the month-long process, we rotate the vessel but very slowly. So imagine a four-foot diameter cylinder lying on its side rotating; it takes 15 minutes for one rotation to happen, every few days.”
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE COMPOST
What started as an architectural grad school design exercise led to Spade’s plan for Recompose. “It really got me thinking about what humans crave when it comes to the end of life and what is lacking in the funeral industry today. One of the things we believe is, especially as Americans, we’ve lost touch with the rituals, the beauty and meaning inherent in the end of one’s life, and we don’t always do a good job of marking that moment.”
Recompose aims to change that. With a peaceful, almost spa-like interior design, Spade says, “We expect to be a place people will be curious about and want to visit, so we’ve designed it thinking a lot about ritual and ceremony and making the space welcoming and comforting. The (76) vessels themselves are pretty straightforward design-wise on purpose, they make up the heart of the space and just by virtue of being there make for an impressive space.”
Like a traditional funeral home, Recompose will offer a $5500 package price, to “pick up the body at the time of death, hold it in refrigerated storage until the day of the memorial, lay the body in the space for friends and family to visit, help them create a meaningful ceremony or memorial, and if they wish, they can return to visit during the month-long process. We want families to know they and their loved one will be cared for and respected.
“Then, once the soil is created, the families may choose to take it home or we’ll donate it to our conservation partner, with a gorgeous 700-acre forest in Washington that’s excited to have this material to nourish the land.”
Recompose is a public benefit corporation, which means they align their mission with their values. Washington is an environmentally active and eco-conscious state. Sustainability matters to them both.
In line with that, Spade says, “There are no major construction inputs because we’re using an existing warehouse and adapting it to our needs, including office space for 17 employees, and a lobby with educational information. Arborists can provide wood chips, and we’re looking to source straw and alfalfa as locally as possible from existing farms. The motor that rotates the vessels has low electricity needs and we’re looking at going solar down the road.”
FUNDING THE FUTURE
Recompose is moving along at a pretty good clip. “In 2017 we raised a seed round of $700,000 to engineer the system, pilot the university-based study and legalize the process. Now we’re raising $6.75 million from heart-aligned investors who understand our mission, impact and values. We’re not an app or a tech company, but we do have a big vision and we’re looking for ‘patient’ capital and more heart-aligned investors to join us as we take the next steps.”
Recompose hopes to open in Seattle in Spring 2021, and seeks to expand in other communities. For more information, visit https://www.recompose.life
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.