Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, and the Associated Press.
As Washington State considers legalizing human composting, advocate Katrina Spade explains the process as a needed alternative to standard burial and cremation.
Update (May 22, 2019): The Washington state legislature passed bill SB-5001 in late April 2019.
When people die, usually one of two things happens to their bodies: Either they are buried below ground in caskets, or they are cremated, reduced to bone fragments by intense heat. But Washington State could soon get another option—human composting. This turns the body into nutrient-rich soil naturally in about 30 days.
Last month, Washington State Senator Jamie Pedersen pre-filed a bill to legalize human composting, also known as “recomposition.” If it passes, Washington would be the first state in the U.S. to allow the practice. (The bill would also legalize alkaline hydrolysis, the dissolving of bodies in a pressurized vessel with water and potassium hydroxide, or lye; it is already legal in 16 states.) Pedersen introduced a bill to legalize alkaline hydrolysis in 2017 but without success.
The fact that human composting is on the legislative agenda is largely thanks to designer and entrepreneur Katrina Spade. Spade is the founder and CEO of Recompose, a human-composting company, and she has spent years promoting it as a greener alternative to standard death practices. In the process that Recompose has devised, the body is placed in a vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, which work to decompose the body. The company co-sponsored a recent trial at Washington State University that determined recomposition is safe and effective, and Spade and her team say it uses only one-eighth the energy of cremation.
Spade wants to build a fully functioning human-composting facility in Seattle when the practice becomes legal. This would not simply offer a new way to dispose of remains, but be a place of comfort for relatives and friends of the deceased, with gardens and events like poetry readings. CityLab caught up with Spade to find out more about human composting and her vision for this state-of-the-art facility. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you first became interested in this idea of human composting.
I was in graduate school for architecture, and I began thinking about what would happen to my body after I died. And then I got a little obsessed with the funeral industry and the options we have. And then a friend of mine told me about this practice that farmers and agricultural institutions have been using for decades now to recycle animals back to the land. It was like a light bulb went off, and I decided to make it my mission to apply those principles to humans and create a new option for human disposition.
Once you had this idea, where did you go from there?
I had the luxury of being in graduate school, so it became my thesis project. I was at my desk many, many hours a day at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the architecture department, just kind of imagining what would be meaningful and thinking a lot about what the space would look like and feel like.
In 2014, I got this fellowship called Echoing Green. It was really surprising to me that this wasn’t just an idea for my friends and family, but it was something that the broader community was really interested in. That fellowship came with seed funding and allowed me to quit my day job and just work on the project full time. I was then able to start a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project. We did a lot of the initial research into the work and also started to build a community around the idea.
In 2017, we closed the nonprofit and started Recompose, which is a public-benefit corporation. Most of our focus has been on co-sponsoring research with Washington State University. We’re also working with the Washington state legislature to try to pass proposed legislation that would allow recomposition for public use. And then we’re always working toward designing and developing Recompose Seattle, which hopefully will be the first place in the world where recomposition is offered.
What’s your vision for this facility?
We will probably lease a warehouse base. Ideally, it will have character. And then we’ll fit it out to make sure that there’s natural light and interior gardens, and mostly just make a space that feels really comfortable and really comforting to people. And then we would implement our recomposition system in the building itself, so families can come and have a memorial service, spend time together, and also start their loved one’s body on this journey of transformation from human to soil.
Tell me more about the recomposition process. Besides putting a body in a vessel with materials used to break down the remains, what else is involved?
With the aerated process, oxygen is a really important piece, because essentially what we’re doing is creating the right environment for microbes to do their job. [It] requires oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, and then the microbes really do a beautiful job of breaking everything down on a molecular level and creating this beautiful, usable soil.
Could the process work for everyone?
The process is good for just about everyone. I think the only exception would be if you have a disease where you’re quarantined. That wouldn’t be a fit. But those are exceedingly rare [cases].
One of the reasons you argue for recomposition is the positive environmental impact it could have. Can you say more?
One of the reasons I started developing the concept was because I found out that both cremation and conventional burial have a significant carbon footprint. Thanks in part to sequestration of carbon that occurs during the process, it has been estimated that recomposition will save just over a metric ton. That means that for every person that chooses to be recomposed instead of cremated or buried, it will save just over a metric ton of carbon, which is pretty significant.
I think one of the things for me, in addition to that carbon savings, is just having a way to create usable soil. Something that you can go grow a tree with and have sort of this ritual around that feels meaningful.
Can recomposition help in large, dense cities where cemetery plots are limited?
My vision has always been that conventional burial—giving everyone their own spot in this city—probably isn’t very sustainable in the long term. So what’s a process that works for our urban population? And I think recomposition really fits that. [In] a lot of cities, people are concerned about land use. And cemeteries are filling up, so one of the things recomposition does is solve for that problem.
Are there psychological benefits to human composting?
I think in general, death is a really personal thing. And people experience death of a loved one in so many ways. So our goal with recomposition is just to add more choice when it comes to death of a loved one, so that it’s still really personal.
In my vision, we have a dozen options for disposition in the next 10 years or so, because I think that’s really what we as a diverse and creative society deserve. But for now, we’d like to add recomposition to the list.