Katrina Spade said turning 30 reminded her that she is mortal.
“I just started thinking about and being curious of what friends or loved ones would do with my body,” said Spade, the founder of Recompose, a company that will offer “natural organic reduction” for human remains by transforming bodies into compostable soil — about 1 cubic yard per person, or about as much as can fit in a standard wheelbarrow.
She will talk about posing environmentally sustainable alternatives to traditional funerary practices and her vision of what’s possible beyond the current end-of-life, burial versus cremation paradigm, with islanders at 7 p.m. next Thursday, Sept. 19, at Vashon High School.
Spade’s idea for human composting began as The Urban Death Project, a nonprofit that engineered the system to facilitate the process of natural decomposition, rethinking the way society cares for its dead. Bodies are kept inside a sealed container filled with wood chips and aerated for one month so naturally occurring bacteria and microbes can get to work until the organic material breaks down. Spade’s brainchild earned widespread support from the public after it was announced. When she launched a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to complete the initial system design for Recompose, donors contributed $19,000 in 24 hours and fully funded the project two months later.
After SB 5001 — the landmark human composting legislation signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May — becomes law next year, Spade hopes to build the first Recompose facility in Seattle and open its doors by 2021. She intends to license it as a funeral home, creating a space that will be inviting for family and friends to gather and spend time among their deceased loved ones, much like visiting a conventional cemetery.
The service will cost around $5,000, less than a traditional funeral. Once ready, the soil can be used to nourish gardens, for example, or restore conservation land.
Spade described Recompose as an urban equivalent to the concept of a natural “green” burial for those who wish to forgo embalming chemicals and burial in an elaborate casket. The drawback to that option is that space is limited in cities, Spade said. She estimates that human composting saves a metric ton of carbon per person from avoided cremation emissions. It also eliminates the methane generated by decomposing bodies buried in graveyards.
“It can add up pretty quickly if we all started choosing this option,” she said.
Islander Lisa Devereau, president of the Washington State Funeral Directors’ Association, noted that the soil is clean and safe. It can be used anywhere cremated remains may be scattered, including in state parks, though she said to check if a permit must be issued first.
If human composting is here to stay, said Devereau, it faces a perception issue, epitomized by a recent sketch on Conan O’Brien: No one wants to eat produce grown in soil made from grandma after she has passed away. Moreover, she said, not everyone in the funeral industry is taking to the notion, either.
“A lot of the older funeral directors just don’t see this change as reasonable. They think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “The hardest part for Katrina is going to be to get funeral homes [to cooperate] where families say they are interested, and funeral homes say, ‘Oh, you don’t want that, that’s horrible.’”
Devereau said the question she hears most often is what can be done with the composted soil. She hopes there will be opportunities to use it in meaningful ways, such as donating it to help conserve state parks and rebuild forest floors.
“To me, that’s enormous. If we could, in our death, do something wonderful for our environment, why wouldn’t we choose to do that?” she said.
Spade’s talk on the island is a program of the Vashon Conversation for the Living about Dying. Susan Pitiger, one of the organizers of the event, said the group has followed Spade’s work for some time and eventually inquired about whether she would come to the island. She does not believe Recompose is radically new, she added, because people used to memorialize the deceased without creating barriers to the natural decomposition process. Now, she said, many struggle to even speak about death openly.
“We’re death phobic. Any way we can bring up the word ‘death’ and have people look at it gives each one of us the opportunity to fully live our life,” she said. “[When] we avoid even saying the word, in some way it decreases our ability to fully live.”
Sally Carleson, a reverend of the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship, is another organizer of the event. Across the world, she said, death is viewed as a part of life, unlike in American culture, where it’s framed in other terms.
“The medical community hasn’t really allowed us in many ways to look at it as this natural progression of life,” she said. “You battle everything that comes along that takes life away from you, and that’s not natural.”
She said that today people are more receptive to creative solutions for growing problems facing the modern world that blend elements of tradition with new ideas.
“I think most people have their own opinion of death, but one common thing that weaves everybody together is that people believe in dust to dust. You were made out of dust and to dust you shall return. It’s scripture.”
Human composting will be scrutinized long after the state law is implemented, she said, but talking about it may inspire people to reassess what the end of their life says about the way they lived and what they value.
“It’s coming into its time, or at least that’s my belief,” she said.
Not everyone agrees. The Washington State Catholic Conference released a statement after the passage of SB 5001, asserting that the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased in sacred spaces shows greater respect for the dead than human composting.
Spade was an early advocate for SB 5001 and said the bill received letters of support by a dozen faith leaders across Washington in the time she worked to pass it. She said religious customs and rituals can be layered over the framework of Recompose in the future. Some in Vashon’s faith community are now considering how they might do that.
Rev. Sarah Colvin of the Vashon Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit said the denomination will likely take a position on the matter after it has had time to examine human composting further. She cited the church’s position on cremation, which it has only permitted since the 1970s on the basis that cremated remains be interred or deposited in consecrated ground.
Colvin, a former deputy physician in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Washington, D.C., said she imagined the Episcopal Church’s response to human composting would not differ much from its stance on cremation. But speaking for herself, the job of answering hard questions about death as a physician, Colvin said, changed the way she now thinks about her own end of life.
“I hate embalming fluid, and I hate cremation. I understand why people do it, but it’s not my thing,” she said. “ I don’t want to be embalmed, I don’t want to be cremated. Put me in the ground.”
Suzanne Greenberg, president of the Havurat Ee Shalom, noted that in the Jewish tradition, most are wrapped in a shroud and buried in simple pine coffins that quickly deteriorate so the body may return to the earth. Embalming and cremation are prohibited, as both are thought to desecrate the body. But conservative rabbis believe human composting is demeaning and inconsistent with Jewish law.
“When I heard about human composting, I thought, ‘Yes, this is it,” she said. “To me, it’s exactly the intention of Jewish law. This is exactly what it’s about.”
After her mother died six years ago, Greenberg said she discovered that most cemeteries require caskets to be sealed inside a cement vault to prevent the grave from caving in. She thinks that is far less aligned with tradition than what Recompose does. To Greenberg, human composting gets it right.
“My whole life, I’ve been saying, ‘Throw me in a heap on the compost,’ and when this finally came around I went, ‘Oh my God, finally,’” she said. “We all have images of what composting means, and at first it’s not something that sounds like it’s honoring the body, but when you see what it is, it’s beautiful.”