Katrina Spade had a vision to revolutionize the way we process our dead and set out to innovate an ecologically friendly alternative to traditional funerary practices. After founding the Washington-based ecological death care company Recompose in 2017, it would take years of lobbying before Washington State would approve the above-ground decomposition process, which constitutes a green alternative to burial and cremation by turning human remains into compost.
Spade has termed the decomposition process “natural organic reduction,” an ecologically friendly form of death care that takes a human corpse and turns it into soil. The service costs around $5,500, giving loved ones the take-home commemorative gift of a sample of the soil that can be used to enrich green spaces.
Land use is a hot topic in the fight against the climate crisis, with rewilding of processed stretches of land such as farms presenting an opportunity to sequester atmospheric carbon and boost biodiversity. The need to return land to its natural state was the subject of a recent BBC documentary from David Attenborough called A Life On Our Planet, which tracks the devastating influence of ever-increasing atmospheric carbon on the Earth, its landmarks, and plant, animal, and human life.
America is estimated to contain around 1 million acres (404,685 hectares) of land currently dedicated to human burial, representing a significant chunk of the land that has been stripped of its natural plant and wildlife composition. On top of this, the production of caskets sees around 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of forest lost each year, the loss of which is likely worse when the planks needed to facilitate burials are taken into account. Embalming also commits around 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid to the ground, which can leach into the soil as a contaminant. Spade’s vision is to remove deforestation and chemical leaching from the funerary process, seeing bodies end their lives as naturally as they came in. The above-ground decomposition process, which will take place at Recompose, aims to cut the carbon emissions involved in funerary practices.
"It's been great to see the environmental impact grow as our membership does," Recompose team member Anna Swenson told IFLScience in an email. "We now have 550 Precompose members, each of whom will save 1 metric ton of CO2 from entering the environment compared to conventional burial or cremation. According to this EPA calculator, 550 metric tons of CO2 is the equivalent of powering 63 homes or driving over a million miles. As our community grows, so does our collective impact. The participatory death care aspect of the laying-in is also a deeply meaningful part of this work."
In case this all sounds rather appealing, it may interest you to know how the process goes. The recipe for human composting is a simple and natural one, as bodies are placed within a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw to form a cocoon. Over the next 30 days, microbes in the mixture get to work breaking down the body, which will eventually be transformed into a soil much like compost.
There are some exceptions to Recompose’s open-door policy, owing to the health and safety considerations of composting people who died of certain diseases. Ebola is one such disease, as it’s highly infectious and could feasibly cause an outbreak were it to be contracted by a visitor or member of staff. The prion disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is another, as current evidence shows this contractible and fatal illness isn’t destroyed by the composting process. For everything else, the natural organic reduction does a tip-top job of destroying pathogens, leaving nothing behind but rich, nourishing soil.