One with the Earth
If you could return your body to the earth in a way that benefited the environment, would you do it?
In the summer of 2011, Katrina Spade '13MArch considered this question after playing with her then-young son, reflecting on the lightning speed in which her child was growing up and, in turn, her own mortality.
That moment, acknowledging the fleetingness of life, sparked the thought process that ultimately led to the creation of Recompose, a public-benefit corporation that offers a natural alternative to conventional death care practices.
A dummy is placed in a Recompose vessel to demonstrate the human composting process.
Modern-day death care in the United States has historically consisted of one of two options: standard burial in a casket or cremation, an option currently documented as the most popular form of death care. However, environmentalists, conservationists, and everyday people are seeking alternative, greener options.
Cremating a single corpse, for example, typically takes up to three hours of burning and releases almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of a 500-mile car journey, into the atmosphere. At the same time, the Green Burial Council estimates 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of formaldehyde and other embalming fluids, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are put into the ground each year for burials in the United States.
In the fall of 2011, Spade entered the Master of Architecture program at UMass Amherst and considered these substantial environmental repercussions in her studies. She remembers thinking, “When I die, I guess I’ll be cremated. I like green burial, but I want to live in a city. How could I bring nature to urban death care?"
Spade brought these questions to UMass architecture faculty, who invited Spade to explore new death care options. "The architecture program at UMass Amherst is the reason Recompose exists," Spade notes. "My professors were kind and curious, allowing new ideas to flow freely. They encouraged creative, critical thinking and expected students to dive deep. So, I decided to dive deep into my own mortality and ask what I'd want for my body when I died."
While at UMass, Spade learned farmers have been composting animals for decades, and the idea left her wondering: What if you could do the same for humans?
"Professors Professors Max Page, Kathleen Lugosch, and I laughed a lot in studio about the idea of composting humans," Spade recalls. "But we also took it very seriously. Like, why shouldn't this new form of death care exist in the world? And what ritual does it deserve?"
Recompose's structure contains natural organic reduction vessels for bodies to decompose.
In her time at UMass, Spade built a compost heating system with her colleagues, demonstrating the incredible power of microbes in what Spade considers to be a prototype of a prototype to the Recompose system. In 2013, she completed her thesis, Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Place for the Urban Dead, showcasing the potential for green death care practices that could work in both a rural and urban setting.
"I loved the idea of natural burial, but I love living in urban centers where that's not a practical form of death care," she says. "I wanted to create a natural, ecologically-focused death care for our cities."
In the summer of 2014, Spade was awarded the Echoing Green Fellowship, allowing her to focus on ecological death care full time. It was then Spade founded the Urban Death Project (UDP), a nonprofit where experts in soil science, engineering, and project management helped develop the idea of recomposition, later defined as Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), a process which Spade considered to be fundamental to human composting.
Through the UDP, Spade partnered with Western Carolina University Professor Cheryl Johnston to test the NOR concept with the Department of Forensic Anthropology. Through WCU’s Forensic Osteology Research Station, Dr. Johnston and Spade completed the process on a human body for the first time.
Spade's NOR research through the UDP gained national attention — coverage from the New York Times and other high-profile publications led to a successful Kickstarter campaign that provided the necessary funding for Spade's plan. Though the initial blueprint contained a facility that placed bodies in a collective core, Spade's vision shifted to one in which individual vessels were used instead, a change that she notes allowed for an easier path to legalization. In 2017, Spade closed the UDP and founded Recompose as a public benefit corporation .
“Closing the UDP and opening Recompose was an important turning point," Spade says. “It helped us raise the funding needed to build infrastructure, hire experts, and continue bringing natural organic reduction to the public."
After extensive research through an Ashoka Fellowship, Spade connected with Sen. Jamie Pedersen, her local Capitol Hill representative, who became the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 5001: Concerning Human Remains. In 2019, the bill was signed into law by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, making Washington State the first in the world to legalize NOR, defined as "the contained accelerated conversion of human remains to soil." The practice has since been legalized in Colorado and Oregon as well.
"Although the legalization process takes a lot of time and effort, we have yet to see real opposition to the idea," notes Spade. "It's not for everyone, but having more choices for our bodies after we die is a good thing, especially when we look at the state of the world and climate change. I think Recompose brings a sense of hope to people."
Now, after years of design, development, fundraising, and collaboration, Recompose accepts bodies for human composting. Soil created by the Recompose process can be donated to Bells Mountain, a 700 acre land trust in southern Washington forest, powering the restoration of the environment and new life after death.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
"Our bodies contain nutrients when we die, so why not return those nutrients to the earth? That's the basic vision," says Spade.
- Natural organic reduction (NOR), also known as human composting, is powered by beneficial microbes that occur naturally on our bodies and in the environment.
- Recompose staff lay the body in a cradle surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw.
- The cradle is placed into a Recompose vessel and covered with more plant material.
- The body and plant material remain in the vessel for 30 days. Microbes break everything down on the molecular level, resulting in the formation of a nutrient‑dense soil.
- Each body creates one cubic yard of soil amendment, which is removed from the vessel and allowed to cure.
- The soil created returns the nutrients from each body to the natural world. It restores forests, sequesters carbon, and nourishes new life.
This story was originally published in April 2022.
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