Human Composting, also known as natural organic reduction, soil transformation, and Terramation, is the process of turning the deceased into usable, natural soil. The exact process depends on the facility, but typically a body is composted in a contained environment with materials such as hay and soil. It is currently legal in seven US states (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Vermont, and New York), and is being advocated for legalization in many other states and countries.
Return Home is a funeral home in Auburn, Washington that specializes in Terramation – their word for human composting. The facility was created by Micah Truman and his mother, Lexi. When you hear about a human composting facility, you might think of a solarpunk style garden where bodies are buried beneath lush trees and flowers. But before a body becomes soil, many steps are involved.
We asked human composting specialist, Martin Hutchinson, to tell us more about working at Return Home. With nearly a decade of experience working in funeral homes, Martin is the person at Return Home who makes the “magic happen” behind the scenes. He is dedicated to making sure every client is treated with the utmost care and respect during the process of composting.
This Q&A is a part of an ongoing TalkDeath series titled Careers in Death Care, where you can read about the ins and outs of many careers in the funeral and death care industry.
♦ Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
♦ A Day in the Life of an Aquamation Tech
♦ A Day in the Life of a Cremation Technician
♦ A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator
♦ A Day in the Life of a Death Doula
♦ A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
♦ A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
♦ A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
♦ A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
♦ A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
♦ A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
♦ A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician
♦ A Day in the Life of a Human Composting Technician
♦ A Day in the Life of a Pathologist
A Day in the Life of a Human Composting Technician
Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a Human Composting Technician?
I have been in the funeral industry for about ten years now. Firstly as a removal tech, then as a cremationist, and now as a NOR specialist. How I got here is a bit of a story, but it honestly was originally just going to be a summer job. I didn’t like retail and figured I would give the funeral home life a try. Worst case, I could just find another place if things didn’t work out. I quickly fell in love with the work though.
Being able to help families with the hardest day of their lives brings a lot of meaning to my day to day life. From there, I heard about Return Home and asked someone I knew who worked there if they were hiring.
What inspired you to become a Human Composting Technician?
I would say the inspiration began when I found out that my wife was pregnant with our son. It really made me take a good long look at the world and how things were looking to be in 10-20 years. It made me want to try to find a way to make the world better somehow. When I first learned about human composting and how the end goal was to help return life to the earth, it seemed like it would be the best move I could make at the time.
What is the biggest misconception about Human Composting?
Just speaking for myself, the biggest misconception I had was how natural the whole thing is. I had assumed that we needed to add some sort of chemical or do something to the body to speed up the process [of decomposition], but it really is just as simple as laying someone into a box full of straw and letting nature do its job.
Run us through a typical day as a Human Composting Technician.
The first thing I do each day is a routine check of our biofilter. This is a device that is connected to the HVAC systems that runs throughout our facility and essentially removes any odors that come out of our vessels during our process. After that, my day varies largely based on what I have coming up both on the day in question and further down the week.
Some days I spend in the back of the building either screening cases or packaging soil to return to families. Other days I am premixing our straw, alfalfa, and sawdust mixture to prepare for laying in services in the following days.
What was one of the hardest days you encountered as a Human Composting Technician?
Compared to all the time I have had in other funeral homes, I haven’t really had a hard day as a NOR specialist, yet. More traditional funeral homes, and the one I came from specifically, are very fast pace, high stress environments. I was constantly running around trying to do the work that was assigned to me and made sure that other people were on top of whatever they needed to be doing. And being the senior employee there, often if there was a problem I was the one who could solve it or best able to solve it.
So I guess the easiest answer for my hardest day at Return Home would be the first day. This whole process is so new and different from everything else I have done in the industry, there was a lot to learn.
What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as a Human Composting Technician?
There have been a few times where something has happened that sticks into my memory. Probably the one I remember most wasn’t a singular day but something that happened over the course of a week. We had a child sent to us from out of state. After the lay-in ceremony, the family was here every morning and every night for an entire week. The opportunity for a family to be here that often, regardless of whatever else we may have had going on at the time, and seeing everyone work to accommodate them so they could spend time with their child, was very special to me.
Another thing I want to talk about isn’t exactly related to the job but the company I work at. Coming from a corporate run funeral home, I wasn’t expecting the treatment that I have gotten here. We have a very small team and everyone is treated like a part of the family. We even have a day each week where we get the whole team together and get lunch. I’ve felt valued at other companies in the past, but never to the extent that I do here at Return Home.
How can someone interested in becoming a Human Composting Technician start the process?
There are two avenues I could suggest here. The first is to go to mortuary school, follow the traditional route to get into the funeral industry, and then try to branch out from there. The other is to just apply. Honestly, this part of the industry is still so new by funeral industry standards that a lot of the more technical things we do are figured out in house, and while a good foundation will help, it isn’t needed unless you plan to be in the “front of house” helping families with things like state paperwork and figuring out funeral plans.
What type of education or training do you need to become a Human Composting Technician?
As I mentioned in the last question, a lot of the more technical parts are things that we develop in house and would need to train in house. As the terramation process grows I would love for there to be organizations like NORA that can train people on how to do the job. Unfortunately that just isn’t where we are right at this time. Outside of that, any funeral industry knowledge will generally help. So mortuary school or cremationist certification.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a Human Composting Technician, or interested in becoming a Human Composting Technician?
I used to give out advice when training people at the last funeral home I worked at that generally can apply here as well. Just shoot to make it through the first three months. If you can make it through three months, then generally there is nothing you will run into that will prove too much for you to handle.
The other bit of advice is there is no shame in admitting you can’t do the job. The funeral industry isn’t for everybody. You will see people at their absolute worst and will probably have to deal and see some of the worst things that can be seen. It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that and then go home to their family and be fine.