• Erika Brenner

From Ash To Soil

The Outsight: What if there was a more sustainable way to die?







Death. Aside from birth, is literally the one thing in life we are all sure to go through. Yet, is something no one really likes to think or talk about, it’s taboo.


Have you had that talk yet? Would your loved ones know what to do with your body when you die?


Most people would probably say buried or cremated, but are those really the only two options? Or are those even the best options?


According to the UN, in 2019, there were close to 58.5 million deaths worldwide - that’s almost 12x the population of Norway - and the projection is that, by the year 2050, there will be almost 93 million deaths that year.


Naturally, cemeteries all over the world are reaching capacity, despite taking up approximately 1 million acres of land in the US alone.


“Turns out, it doesn’t really make good business sense to sell someone a piece of land for eternity - whose idea was that?” - Katrina Spade, founder & CEO of Recompose

Not only there is a space issue, but burials are expensive (increased real estate prices for a plot, but also the maintenance it requires), and it’s terrible for the environment.


Basically, because we decided to do everything we could to delay the natural decomposition process, the current funerary practices are not only trying to stop nature but also poisoning it in the process. How? Well:

  • Unnecessary chemical sanitation: it’s done to avoid bacterias to proliferate, but the bacterias that will decompose the body are not the same that cause diseases, so there is no real need for adding harmful chemicals in the process

  • The embalming practice is toxic: it pumps a chemical cocktail into the body to delay the speed of decay. More than 800k gallons of formaldehyde (known to be a potential carcinogen) are put into the ground along with dead bodies every year in the US alone.

  • Beautification of the corpse: the same way we pump bodies with chemicals to delay decay, there is also a huge amount of cosmetics used to beautify the dead that taints the natural decomposition process

  • The amount of materials that go into the burial is insane: conventional burials in the US every year use 30 million board feet of hardwood, 2700 tons of copper and bronze, 104k tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete. The amount of casket wood alone could build about 4.5 million homes and, according to “The Green Burial Council”, enough metal is buried in the US to build a whole new Golden Gates bridge every year. Not to mention the impact the transportation of all these materials has too.


Because of the clear harm burials inflict on the environment, we are seeing an exponential increase in the number of cremations - and many people cite environmental concerns as one of the top reasons, along with the cost.


In the 1950s, the idea of cremation was unthinkable, but last year, 60% of all funerals in the US were cremations. Some projections suggest that by 2040, almost 80% of people will choose to be cremated.


So that’s better, right? Cremation saves space, check. Cremation is cheaper than burials, check. Cremation is better for the environment,... No? Well, not really. It turns out that the environmental impact of cremations is about the same as conventional burials.


Each cremation, aside from electricity, uses 28 gallons of gas (about the size of the gas tank in a large SUV), so that means that, for every cremation, we are shooting a bunch of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - which doesn’t exactly solve the problem…


“The truly awful truth is that the very last thing most of us will do on this Earth, is poison it.” - Katrina Spade, founder & CEO of Recompose

So what other options are there? Is there a “greener” way to die?


While earning her Masters of Architecture degree, Katrina Spade looked at all these facts and she was determined to find a better solution.


“Could I create a system that was beneficial to the earth, that used nature as guide rather than something to be feared? Something that was gentle to the planet?” - Katrina Spade, founder & CEO of Recompose

When something dies in nature, microbes and bacteria do an excellent job breaking them down into nutrients for a rich soil - as Katrina puts it: “In nature, death creates life”.


I mean, it sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Even Disney has sung about “The Circle of Life”, but for some reason (probably our own ego) humans have been trying to avoid that process for centuries. Maybe it’s time to accept it - or even better, embrace it.


During Katrina’s research, she came across farmers that were composting whole cows and using the material to enrich their soil - the process is known as “mortality composting” and is a fairly common practice in farming.


Basically, all the farmers have to do is create the right environment for nature to do its job, welcoming microbes and bacteria instead of repelling them. Nine months later, the cow is no longer a cow, it’s transformed. It's now soil and it’s been cycled back into nature.


Katrina then wondered if maybe a similar process could be replicated to deal with human mortality.


“You can probably imagine the light bulb that went off in my head [...]. I began designing a system based on the principles of livestock mortality composting that would take human beings and transform them into soil. Imagine it, part public park, part funeral home, part memorial to the people we love, a place where we can reconnect with the cycles of nature and treat bodies with gentleness and respect. ” - Katrina Spade, founder & CEO of Recompose

And just like that Recompose was born. Not exactly with that name then and there, but after years of studying and developing the system for human composting as well as lobbying with local governments to make it a legal funerary option, the company has evolved and is set to open its first facility in 2021.


In partnership with the University of Washington, Recompose has developed a recomposing process (different from natural decomposing) called Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) to gently transform human remains into soil.



Finished material from human composting (courtesy of Washington State University, from WBUR)

The process requires 1/8th of the energy of conventional burial or cremation and prevents one metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere for every person that chooses Recompose over traditional death-care options.


In just 30 days, the deceased body transforms into usable, fertile soil.


Recompose’s vision is that the space, like crematoriums and other funeral facilities, will offer a place for families to gather and mourn their loved ones. Then the bodies are placed in a vessel where it’ll go through the recomposition process and, once the process is completed, the family can come collect the soil and/or donate it to a conservation forest.



Image credits and copyrights: Recompose / Olson Kundig / Molt Studios



Recomposition, for now, is only legal in Washington state, but other places of the US and the world have started to look at human composting as a viable death-care solution that not only allows for better urban planning but is also more circular and sustainable.


Repeating Katrina’s words, what an exciting time to be alive!






Where to start your Rabbit hole:

Recompose

TEDxOrcasIsland, “When I die, recompose me”, Katrina Spade, 2016

TED MED, “A burial practice that nourishes the planet”, Caitlin Doughty, 2016

Death Care Industry, “What recomposition means for the death care industry”, 2019

US Funerals Online, “Funeral Cremations”, 2020

US Funerals Online, “Green Funerals”, 2020

The Atlantic, “How to be Eco-Friendly when you’re dead”, 2014.

WBUR, “Soil Instead Of Ashes: Human Composting Is About To Become Legal In Washington State”, 2019.

Shouts, “You Can Now Add Compost A Body To The List Of After Death Services”, 2020

Forbes, “The future of death tech”, 2020

Considerable, “Death is forever. Cemeteries, as they currently exist, might not be”, 2020

Business Insider, “Burying dead bodies takes a surprising toll on the environment”, 2015

Forbes, “By 2040, nearly 80% will be cremated - why we need to start talking about it”, 2019

The Hustle, “This deathcare startup is shaking up the funeral industry by decomposing bodies”, 2020

BBC, “Human compost funerals ‘better for environment’”, 2020

BBC, “How do you compost a human body - and why would you?”, 2019

The Seattle Times, “Competition emerges in the Seattle-area human-composting funeral business”, 2020

Dezeen, “Olson Kundig unveils Recompose Seattle facility for composting human bodies”, 2019

Inverse, “Recomposition: Washington’s Future Dead Could Legally Become Compost”, 2019

Science Alert, “The World’s first human composting facility will open in 2021”, 2019