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News + PoliticsEnvironmentAfter death, returning your body to the Earth

After death, returning your body to the Earth

Human composting is cheaper and more environmentally sound than traditional burials or cremation.


It’s a question that makes people squirm: What do you want to happen to your body after you die? Many don’t give it a second thought, opting to go for one of the two most common choices: cremation or burial. These processes, as prevalent as they are, come with a hefty price tag—and serious environmental problems.

But there are options for a quicker and environmentally conscious green burial, including one that connects you with the Earth—by turning you into Earth.

A dummy body shows the process of composting at Recompose. Recompose courtesy photo.

It’s not that popular yet. Most people in this country have been choosing cremation over traditional burial, and by 2040 the cremation rate in the US is projected to be 79 percent of all death procedures, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). This could be due to cost; according to the NFDA the average funeral in 2021 cost $9,420, with the average cremation being slightly cheaper at $6,970.

With 2.4 million funerals happening each year, the death industry in the U.S. is worth an estimated $20 billion annually.

But there’s also a hidden cost on the planet, because traditional burials use a lot of materials. Each year 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are poured into the ground for burial plots, and 30 million board feet of hardwood is used for caskets — that’s enough to build 4.5 million homes. In addition, cemeteries take up a lot of space that is basically one-time use, since the residents in cemeteries don’t often leave of their own volition.

Some cemeteries in Spain and Greece offer above-ground crypts for rent, called “niches,” where bodies can lay for several years. This can allow the mourners to visit the body during the rental period, and after that time is over, the interred is moved to a communal burial ground so the niche can be reused.

That may be a solution to the space-saving problem, however it doesn’t solve the issue of the toxic chemicals embalming can release into the soil through burials. It is estimated that 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, leaks into the Earth through embalmed bodies each year.

And while it may be cheaper, cremation isn’t much better for the environment. Big crematories produce an average of 535 pounds of carbon dioxide in a single cremation — that’s an estimated 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emitted every year in the U.S. alone.

The green way to go

That’s where green burials come in. Also known as ecoburials, they are a way to care for the dead and inter them with minimal environmental impact. They typically do not use embalming and very often just deposit the body directly into the earth—no casket.

Fernwood Cemetery in the San Francisco Bay Area is an ecoburial cemetery, and features 11 burial grounds for the deceased to be laid to rest. The body is typically wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and placed into the ground, without any chemicals or extra materials. This can still cost anywhere from $5,000 to $13,500 and while the grounds may look breathtaking, there is still the issue of space and time to consider. Fernwood takes up 32-acres of land, and the natural decomposition rate of humans takes anywhere from months to years to fully break down.

Then there’s human composting—also known as natural organic reduction. It’s the process of breaking down a deceased body into soil, using alfalfa and woodchips, which can then be used as any normal soil. Farmers have been composting animal remains for a long time, which gave Recompose founder Katrina Spade, the idea to develop that process for human remains.

“I thought if I can compost a cow, I can certainly compost the human body,” Spade told us.

Spade was a graduate student studying architecture at the University of Massachusetts when she started thinking about the environmental impact her body would leave when she died.

“I was thinking about systems that humans create—broadly speaking— and also about my own body when I died, and I was disappointed that the funeral industry only had a couple of options for me,” said Spade. “Whatever I have left in my body, I’d love to give that back at the end.”

In 2014, Spade founded the Urban Death Project and raised $91,000 on Kickstarter to develop the first human composting system. The organization partnered with Western Carolina University and its Forensic Osteology Research Station to successfully compost a human for the first time.

In 2017, Spade closed UDP and founded Recompose, and a year later partnered with Washington State University on a pilot program to compost six humans who had donated their bodies. They used the results of the program to campaign for legislature to legalize human reduction in the state of Washington.

“I remember walking around the halls of Olympia with a little baggie of wood chips, alfalfa and straw, and a little baggie of cow compost to show lawmakers ‘here’s the before and here’s the after.’ Just to demystify it a little bit,” said Spade.

Human composting was legalized with broad support in the state of Washington in 2019, and similar laws have since passed in Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and most recently California.

The reducing process is similar to how a body naturally decomposes over time, just more quickly and more efficiently. Where a human is buried affects how quickly they would decompose under “natural” conditions—factors like moisture and microbial biomes can speed up or slow that process, which is how we end up with mummies or fossilized bones that last centuries. With the right technology, natural organic reduction can break down the human body completely, even the bones, within a few months.

 “If you wanted to go out in the woods you could compost the body and have that bone breakdown over six to eight months, maybe a year,” said Spade. “But we decided that a mechanical helper was necessary for us in terms of making it happen in a timeframe that made sense for our clients.”

The deceased is placed into a stainless-steel cylinder called a “vessel” that is eight feet long and four feet in diameter, and then covered in wood chips and alfalfa in a “laying in ceremony” by friends and family.

“We wanted to find the right mixture of plant material that would have the balance of carbon and nitrogen,” said Spade. “But also thinking about the human experience, it was important to us early on that it smells great, and it is something that family and friends can actually put their hands on and be comforting, in a way, to place that straw and wood chips on the body as part of the ritual.”

The remains are broken down over two months by microbes that exist naturally on the body, and Recompose employees regularly rotate and aerate the soil to encourage microbial activity and to break up larger bone fragments. At the end of the process, any fragments left larger than one centimeter are processed, ground up, and mixed back into the soil. The end product is tested to make sure there are no remaining pathogens or any potentially harmful bacteria, and the entire process costs around $7,000.

Afterwards the family receives a full cubic yard of soil—enough to fill the bed of a pickup truck—which they can choose to keep or donate to conservation efforts at Bells Mountain, in southern Washington.

Water cremation

However, if you don’t have a green thumb, or if you prefer the results of cremation, there is still another option.

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water/aqua cremation or resomation, was legalized in California in 2020 and is another environmentally friendly death process that has the same results as flame cremation, but with less pollution.

“It’s basically the same process that occurs as part of nature’s course when a body is laid to rest in the soil,  Kahla Flores, an alkaline hydrolysis technician at White Rose Aqua Cremation in Escondido, told us. “When the body naturally breaks down over a long period of time, that’s basically what’s happening inside of our vessels. We just have it done in a much quicker process.”

White Rose was the first flameless cremation facility in California, and their facility is completely electric. The process costs about half of an average flame cremation at $3,895.

Resomation has been around since 1888, when it was first invented by Amos Herbert Hobson to produce fertilizer from animal carcasses. It started being used to dispose of human remains in 1988, one hundred years later.

The body is placed into a perforated, stainless steel “basket” and submerged in heated, highly alkaline water. No harsh chemicals are used to strip the body; only potassium salts are used to raise the water’s pH balance to around 13-14, something White Rose wants to stress to clients.

“It’s a big misconception that we’re adding chemicals into our machine,” said Flores. “A lot of people that make their own beauty products, lotions, soaps, those kinds of things—those products are potassium salts. That’s something we really like to share because it’s so gentle, you can hold it in your hands.”

After about eight hours only the skeletal remains are left, which are then dried, processed into ashes, and returned to the family. Flores said the process keeps about 40 percent more remains than a standard flame cremation, which they often have to warn families about: “They’re coming home sometimes with a nine or ten pound urn.”

The process uses about 120 gallons of water for each person, but since the chamber is pressurized and can’t evaporate, no water is lost during the process. The water after is also completely sterile, and only filled with “efflulent,” or the amino acids, proteins, and sugar left from the body. In Escondido, after the pH level is brought back down, the water is simply drained into the wastewater system; in other areas the waste can be used to water inedible crops and flowers.

With the effects of climate change already starting to take hold, ecoburials could be the solution to slowing down a lot of emissions and could give people more of a say about their final impact on the Earth.

“One thing I would say is that it can feel a little scary to think about our mortality, but it can be comforting to start to plan for it, and think through what you want for your body when you die,” said Spade. “It sounds like it wouldn’t be, but it really can comfort.”

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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