“Throw me in the woods, let me decompose, and I’ll just be plant food,” says every aunt and uncle who wants to be shocking and humorous, but what if that idea is not so far-fetched? Human composting, or natural organic reduction, is the process of breaking down human remains into usable compost or soil that can be returned to the bereaved family or contributed to a conservation area and, ultimately, become plant food.
The process was first legalized in the United States in Washington in 2019 with the aid of Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose and the mind behind the urban adaptation of human composting. It is now also legal in Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont; it is in the legislative process in several other states.
Here is a video we did with Katrina Spade and former Green Burial Council CEO, Joe Sehee over 6 years ago (!!) when the project was just getting started (and TalkDeath was still under a different name).
Becoming Human Compost: The Process of Natural Organic Reduction
What is natural organic reduction?
While there are differences in the process depending on the company, there is a general cycle that the body goes through to become compost. First, the deceased is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or covered with a blanket. Some facilities may use specific material that biodegrade much quicker than a standard burial shroud, while some lay the body in the composting vessel undressed. Return Home for example, dresses the body in a handmade garment made purely of pressed cotton. The body is then laid into a reusable container–sometimes this is called a vessel or a cradle–made of metal, plastic, and/or wood that has been filled with organic matter. The organic matter is made up of different mixes of wood chips, straw, alfalfa, sawdust, and wildflowers. Once the body is laid on top of this organic layer, any inorganics like a blanket or mementos are removed and the vessel is closed to begin the process.
Similar to what would occur in your typical garden compost, the microbes in the organic matter begin to break down the body. The microbial activity generates a lot of heat, and some facilities also artificially aid the decomposition process by a gentle increase in the temperature inside the container. Airflow is also facilitated, because oxygen is crucial for the microbes to thrive. Many of these facilities have even developed their technology to monitor and control the temperature in the vessels. For indoor facilities, the body and organic matter will remain in the container for a period of 30 to 45 days. For facilities that are outdoor, or those that do not use temperature-controlled units, this period can extend to several months. After this period, much of the body will be decomposed, leaving behind bones.
Many people wonder, “what do they do with the bones?” Frankly, bones don’t easily decompose. Due to this challenge, the bones (and any other inorganics) must be sorted within the container and the bones broken down, much like in the process of cremation when the bones are placed in a cremulator. The compost and bones remain together as they go through this processing, and most facilities place all of the soil into a new container to cure, rest, and cool. This second phase can last from two to six weeks, depending on the facility. For facilities whose initial process takes several months, it is possible that the bones may be completely broken down into the soil without additional processing.
After the total period between six weeks and several months, the result of what was once a human body is roughly a cubic yard of organic material, which is about enough to fill the bed of a pick-up truck (although one coordinator did report that it has been successfully placed inside a Honda Fit). The soil can then be returned to the family to be placed in a garden, on farmland, or in a favorite place in nature, or it can be donated and scattered in a conservation area.
Why choose natural organic reduction?
Natural organic reduction is an alternative to conventional burial and cremation that offers less of an environmental impact. In general, it avoids direct use of fossil fuels like in cremation and takes up less space than conventional burial. It also avoids the use of materials like concrete and non-biodegradable caskets often used in conventional burial. Although independent studies still need to be conducted, industry leaders suggest that natural organic reduction is at least carbon neutral in its effect on the environment, and in some estimations prevents one metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. We should however consider the carbon footprint that indoor human composting facilities require to operate in large warehouses.
Natural organic reduction was envisioned as an urban alternative for a more environmentally friendly end of life option. As such, it permits city folk who would otherwise find it difficult to transport a body to a memorial park or conservation cemetery out of town to have a “greener” choice than cremation. However, some natural organic reduction facilities operate in tandem with natural burial practices in rural areas, providing a wide variety of choices for people outside of urban areas as well.
While the environmental benefits of human composting are compelling, choosing natural organic reduction may also have financial incentive. The average cost of a funeral with a conventional burial in the United States is approximately $8,000. And while it is hard to beat the cost of direct cremation averaging less than $2,000, natural organic reduction ranges in price from $3,000 to $7,000, which is on par with green or natural burial and alkaline hydrolysis.
Where is human composting available?
Depending on your current circumstances, there are two ways to access natural organic reduction for your end of life plans. If you are at-need (meaning you or a loved one is nearing death), you can reach out to these current facilities in Washington, Colorado to arrange your body to be transported to their facility for natural organic reduction. Several companies can coordinate pick-up services throughout the United States and even Canada. The facilities currently in operation that offer natural organic reduction include Earth, Herland Forest, Recompose, Return Home, and The Natural Funeral.
If you are interested in making plans for yourself or for a loved one for the future, you can pre-plan your arrangements with one of the companies mentioned above. We would however like to encourage all our readers to contact your local and state representatives to let them know that you are interested in this option for your state or province. The laws currently in place were championed by individuals and companies who encouraged a representative to pursue the bill in legislation.
Natural organic reduction can seem like something out of a science fiction novel or an environmentalist’s fantasy. However, for many of the people who have chosen this for themselves and/or their loved ones, they have been deeply enthusiastic and gratified by the process. We are hopeful to see many more states embrace this new option because everyone deserves to have choices at the end of life.