When Death Creates Life

A novel form of eco-burial: to compost human bodies. Washington State has already made it legal.

Rendering of a future Recompose facility (Image: MOLT Studios)

When Death Creates Life

Most of us don’t enjoy talking about death, much less planning for it. The prospect can be upsetting, anxiety-inducing, financially burdensome. It can make us a little squeamish (If that’s you, proceed with caution.).

But Katrina Spade has made it her livelihood.

As an architecture student, Spade began to think about what would happen with her physical body after she died. She considered the options.

About half of Americans choose conventional burial; in other words, a casket lowered into a concrete-lined grave. This process, she explained in her 2017 TED Talk, is wasteful on a number of fronts. First of all, they take up space:

“It doesn’t make good business sense to sell someone a piece of land for eternity.”

Cemeteries are reaching capacity. Additionally, the materials involved are harmful to the environment:

“All told, in U.S. cemeteries, we bury enough metal to build a Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes, and enough formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

And so, almost half of Americans now opt for cremation, a simpler, cheaper, more ecological option. But, as Spade argues, this too harms the earth, in part by removing the potential to give back in the form of nutrients. It’s also an extremely energy-intensive process.

According to The New York Times, “studies have shown that the energy used to cremate one body is the same as the monthly home-energy demands of an average American.”

“The truly awful truth is that the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it,” Spade lamented.

If burial takes up land and cremation releases excess greenhouse gases, what are we left with?

That’s where Recompose, Spade’s Seattle-based startup, comes in. In short, Recompose’s goal is to transform bodies into soil through a process of natural composting.

Last May, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation allowing the practice of “aboveground decomposition,” precisely what Recompose hopes to do. Spade was present at the signing, alongside funeral directors, scientists, senators, and grassroots activists. The new law takes effect in May 2020.

An Ancient Practice — Updated

These days, burial and cremation seem like the only two available options. But given their impacts on the world around us, for the reasons mentioned above, they’re hardly sustainable. Through her studies, Spade learned how nature regularly solves the problem. When organic material dies, microbes and bacteria complete the life cycle by breaking it down. Or, in her words, “in nature, death creates life.”

For years, farmers have been practicing livestock mortality composting, whereby an animal is covered in a supplemental carbon source, like wood chips, and left to decompose through microbial activity. In less than a year, it becomes a nutrient-rich compost. It’s an ancient, and basic, practice even among humans; eventually, bodies left above ground turn to soil, too.

Rendering of a future Recompose facility (Image: MOLT Studios)

Recompose began using the science behind this farm practice to build a replicable, scalable model — for humans. A body would be placed in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa and straw and, after a month of exposure, it would turn into a cubic yard of soil. The idea is to create facilities where this transformation takes place inside hexagonal “Recomposition Vessels.” Once the process is finished, families can take home some of the soil for planting. “Eventually, you could be a lemon tree,” Spade said.

A New Path in the Era of Climate Change

The company’s pilot project began in 2014 in the hills of North Carolina. Six donor bodies, successfully decomposed, gave a glimpse into the future of this practice. When open to the public, Recompose’s service will cost $5,500 — and use an eighth of the energy that cremation does.

Responses to composting bodies are mixed among the general public.

Through a Life Cycle Assessment, Recompose found that organic reduction created the least impact on the environment, compared to conventional methods. The company estimates that a metric ton of CO2 would be saved each time someone chooses their method over cremation or conventional burial. What happens to pharmaceutical drugs in a body? Most drugs, Spade argues, are also decomposed by microorganisms through this process.

Some reject the idea, while others find it in line with their worldview. The bigger question is: Will it catch on? Will other states follow Washington’s lead? How will Recompose’s method hold up to certain religions or ethical arguments?

Recompose is working to open its first Seattle location in the spring of 2021. In the meantime, cemeteries are beginning to offer green burials due to increased demand. This involves doing away with embalming and concrete vaults, and considering methods to limit waste, such as wrapping the deceased in a simple shroud before burial or opting for coffins made with sustainably harvested wood.


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