My old college friend Cassie is the first person I know who has been turned into soil. I discovered that when I learned of her passing and clicked on a link to a memorial page sent to me by a friend. After a long illness, Cassie, the webpage said, “will evolve into compost & will survive eternally with the glory of the Olympic National Forest providing nurture & nutrients to all the fauna & flora that makes this spot of beauty their home.”
The memorial noted that some of Cassie’s “soil” was available to her friends. At first, I was taken aback. Compost? Then I thought about it, and it made perfect sense. Cassie was a vibrant, funny, brilliant woman, a beautiful soul with blonde curls that cascaded over her shoulders and down her back like party streamers. Leave it to Cassie to go out with a funeral option that was both offbeat, self-deprecating, loving and subversive all at the same time.
“Human composting,” it turns out, isn’t nearly as offbeat as it sounds. With growing awareness of the need to preserve the planet, the practice is growing in popularity. In 2019, Washington, Cassie’s home state, was the first to pass legislation that legalized it. Legislation took effect in May 2020, once the state board of health and department of licensing (the latter of which oversees the funeral board) had released specific regulations governing operators.
Since then, six additional states have passed statutes to legalize the practice, including Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, Nevada, California and New York. Lawmakers have introduced legislation in at least 11 other states, including Maryland, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Four companies now offer the service: Recompose, the pioneer in the field, Return Home, Natural Funeral and Earth Funeral Group, based in Auburn, Washington, which Cassie’s family used. Earth Funeral recently signed a deal to provide its services as an option through Service Corporation International, the largest funeral home company in the U.S.
Concern about climate change is likely to drive adoption in the years to come in the same way cremation took off 50 years ago. In 1960, only 4 percent of Americans who died were cremated. By 2022, cremation was used in almost 60 percent of all deaths, compared to about 36 percent for burials, and it’s expected to jump to almost 80 percent.
But cremation takes a big environmental toll. It generates copious air pollution, including particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants known as “HAPs” that cancer or other serious health impacts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cremation is also a significant source of mercury emissions, due to mercury in dental fillings, as well as mercury in blood and tissues. It also contributes, modestly, to global warming. A single cremation releases an amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, equivalent to a 400- to 600-mile drive in a car.
Human composting—or, as the industry prefers, “soil transformation”—is a far greener alternative. The practice usually entails placing an un-embalmed body into a sealed, pod-like device that accelerates natural decomposition and, after a month, transforms that body into roughly one cubic yard of nutrient-dense soil that can be kept on a shelf, planted in the backyard or returned to nature.
Katrina Spade, an architectural graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, wrote her thesis on the idea in 2014. She conceived of it as an urban alternative to traditional burials. She designed a vertical building filled with pods capable of transforming bodies into soil that could operate in a city center. After graduating, she formed a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project and launched a grassroots campaign to pass the laws needed to make her vision a reality. (The funeral industry is governed by a patchwork of state regulations that vary widely.) She formed the for-profit company, Recompose, in 2018.
Composting conjures up images of broken eggs shells, coffee grinds and rotten vegetables, but Spade argues it’s actually “beautiful.” Decomposition happens naturally, when organic materials rich in carbon and nitrogen, such as leaves and grass, are broken down by microbes. The idea is to optimize conditions for rapid and complete decomposition by ensuring the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, an adequate flow of oxygen, proper levels of moisture and temperature.
At Recompose, a corpse is placed in a metal “cradle” that resembles the bottom half of a coffin, and covered with other plant material, including wood chips and straw. (Other companies add wildflower seeds.) The cradle slides through a door at one end of an eight-by-four-foot stainless-steel “vessel.” Once it closes, a fan ensures a constant flow of oxygen and sensors provide a constant temperature readout. When the temperature falls, rollers turn the vessel over to make sure the body continues decomposing evenly.
Within six hours, the temperature inside the vessel typically rises to roughly 150 degrees due to the heat-generating activity of microbes. Spade and her colleagues monitor the vessel, turning it periodically, for about a month. Then they remove what’s become a mulch-like material, filter out bits of bone and feed what’s left into a machine that grinds it to a sand-like consistency, which can then be mixed back into soil. Eventually, the human mulch gets distributed to forests and meadows within protected conservation lands in southern Washington state.
“After you’re transformed into the soil, you really get to rejoin the ecosystem,” Spade told Newsweek. “It’s s not one specific tree when you donate it to our conservation partners, it’s like the forest and the meadows.”
Since 2020, Recompose has processed the remains of a few hundred people, and an additional 1,500 people have prepaid for the future—more than 25 percent of them fall between the ages of 20 and 49. Earth Funeral, which Cassie used, has done more than 1,000 families, says CEO Tom Harries.
Cassie’s mulched remains ended up on preservation land in the Olympic Peninsula, and her family saved some soil for themselves, her son Theo says. He plans to use it to plant trees in her name and grow some flowers. “She was very in-tune with the world and its creatures,” he says. “Giving back to the earth is what made this seem like the right choice.”