By Andy James
As Briar Bates was facing a fatal cancer diagnosis, she knew she wanted two things after she died: She wanted her friends to stage a celebratory water dance in a public wading pool, and she wanted to become soil.
Bates’ dream of a water dance came true with the help of costumes, choreography and the chutzpah of her friends, who performed in a Seattle wading pool without prior permission.
Now her wish to become soil has helped pass a law that made Washington the first state to allow for the conversion of human remains into compost.
Danny Berg, who lived with Bates in a shared Vashon home, said that Bates’ work as a landscape architect and her passion for the outdoors had greatly informed her final wishes. He said that he had known, even before her diagnosis, that she hated the idea of bodies being buried.
“They were buried below the worm line, so they didn’t really get put back into the ecosystem,” Berg said. “The whole idea of her body being recomposed and put back into the system was great for her.”
Bates died in her Vashon home in June 2017 at the age of 42. Her body, along with those of five others, went to a research study that partnered Washington State University with Recompose, a Seattle company that is aiming to start offering “natural organic reduction” as a service by next year.
The success of the pilot helped with the passage of SB 5001, introduced by Senator Jamie Pedersen of Seattle. The bill passed with little opposition and unanimous support from Vashon’s representatives. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law on May 21, 2019.
The bill also legalized alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based process with a similar outcome to cremation with a much smaller energy input required.
Lisa Devereau, director of Vashon’s Island Funeral Service, also played a role in the law’s passage. As the president of the Washington State Funeral Directors’ Association, she testified with a note of caution when the Senate held hearings in February.
“Vashon is ahead on many things,” Devereau said. “We want to be better to the environment.”
But before the bill’s passage, Devereau and fellow funeral director Scott Sheehan took the legislation in hand. Over a long weekend, they reworked the language to make these new options fit more easily with existing practices.
The bill, as originally written, Devereau said, would have been “horrible” for the funeral industry, requiring extensive changes to all the paperwork used in her industry.
Now, she faces another task: Gaining the acceptance of her fellow funeral directors for these new practices. To that end, she has organized meetings between her colleagues statewide and Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose.
“I think when you learn about something start to finish, it changes your mind compared to when you just hear about it over a cup of coffee.”
Recompose plans to build a facility for its work in Seattle. Artists’ renditions show a spacious room with gardens and a honeycomb structure of hexagonal vessels. These reusable containers will hold the human remains in a mix of organic materials.
The result, after about a month, will be approximately a cubic yard of clean soil. Even bones are converted to compost in the process — non-organic materials like fillings or pacemakers are removed first.
Carol Spangler, who helps lead a group named A Vashon Conversation for the Living about Dying, said she is not surprised by the role Vashon has played in the passage of the bill.
In part, she cited Island residents’ shared concern about their environmental impact and the fact that green burial is currently not an option on Vashon due to state regulations.
Spangler said that Katrina Spade of Recompose has committed to joining an event that Vashon Conversations is planning for the high school on September 19.
The event is part of the group’s larger effort to bring conversations about death and dying into the open in the Vashon community.
Despite its nontraditional nature, Spangler said the option of recomposition can fit with rituals around dying.
“There are certainly some people who are like, ‘I don’t care, I’ll be dead, it doesn’t matter.’” Spangler said. “But there are a lot of people [to whom] ritual is really an important element. It doesn’t mean, I think, that because I’m composted or cremated that I don’t want anything. It’s both/and.”
Devereau worked as a nurse for 25 years before joining the funeral industry in 2000. She noted a swing in attitudes over that time.
“I think people are becoming more aware that they need a formal celebration. We’ve gone through a time of ‘direct cremation, move along.’ I think people are aware that’s not a healthy way to grieve, that we need a service,” Devereau said.
Devereau said that although human composting is not an option yet, it can be specified in the pre-arrangements people can leave with Island Funeral Service at no cost. She also said that, when the time comes, she will make the option available to her clients, alongside the more traditional burial and cremation.
Devereau said she honors Briar Bates’ contribution.
“She donated her body to science,” she said. “We appreciate what Briar did, and we thank her for her donation.”
At the two-year anniversary of her death, many of Bates’ friends said they were reflecting on her role in their lives.
“Briar was about as close as you could get to some kind of combination of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, in human form,” said David Earle, who knew her during the three years she lived on Vashon.
Bates made her living as a landscape architect, but her many artist friends knew her as a prolific creator of projects of all kinds, most involving nature.
One of those friends, Katrina Morgan, had already spent years training as a hospice worker, towards a role she now calls “death doula.” She remembers that even before she became sick, Bates wanted to hear what her friend was learning.
“I was giving her the play-by-play: ‘Today I learned about green funerals; today I learned about death with dignity.’” Morgan recalled. “I was trained years before she was ever sick. That was why it was such a strange and wonderful coincidence. I used everything I learned in my training in working with her.”
When it was clear that Bates’ diagnosis of metastatic melanoma was terminal, she went to work planning for a way to return to the landscape.
Direct burial on her property was not an option. State law would require registering her property as a cemetery, with about $30,000 in costs for the process and upkeep.
Then Morgan learned about the fledgling startup now known as Recompose.
“I called Katrina Spade and said, ‘Here’s the deal: Briar’s at the end of her life, where are you with this?’” Morgan said.
Berg, who was Briar Bates’ primary caretaker during her six-month illness, said that she made for an unfortunately ideal test candidate for the study because her remains had been contaminated by chemotherapy and morphine in her final months.
“It was a really good test subject for them to see, ‘Alright, what happens with the soil, is the soil bad after all this?’” he said. “The soil went through, and it was good.”
Morgan said friends and family were initially disappointed at not getting the soil back. However, she said, Bates herself was unconcerned with where her remains went as long as the study went forward.
“They wanted to do scientific studies,” Morgan said. “It’s the point … She didn’t actually know when she died if her soil would go back to the garden, and it didn’t worry her.”
Bates’ body was received for the study in a pine coffin made by her friends, and both Morgan and Berg remember the Recompose staff taking good care of their departed friend.
“We carried it ourselves to the people who did the study,” Morgan said. “They absorbed the power of what she was in her life. So seeing them, we all broke down in tears as soon as we met. We broke down and we hugged each other. It’s part of loving someone.”
The staff’s care of Bates extended as the process continued.
“When they put her in the vessel, they read poems over her. She was Briar and they treated her that way, not as ‘Case 001,’ she said.
Although she described herself as still in shock over the death of her friend, Morgan said the manner of Bates’ final disposition “was actually a huge relief and a joyous thing, because it sucked so much for her to be dying.”
“One of the things she always said in the last few months of her life was, ‘I did good, right?’” Morgan said. “She did do good. She created and inspired a lot of people.”