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Life after death: how Washington makes compost from the bodies of dead people

Human composting is a new burial method that can turn human remains into useful soil. Theverge.

Photo: IStock

Rachel Gerberding loves growing plants and digging in the ground. So when her mother died in April of this year, Gerberding decided to make fertilizer out of her remains. Gerberding, who lives in Washington State in a house surrounded by flowers, has heard of a new legal method for turning human remains into soil. "I thought, 'Mom, that would be so wonderful for me to just walk through my garden and say, 'Oh, hi mom,'" Gerberding, 48, said of her conversation with her mother. Sharon Gerberding, who previously planned a simple cremation, agreed: "I'm going to die," she told Rachel. - Do what you want!"

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That's why Sharon, who died from complications of multiple sclerosis, was buried in an industrial estate 30 minutes south of Seattle. On a cool spring afternoon, her family gathered in a nondescript hangar-like building tucked away between a rubber band warehouse, processing plants, and an air quality testing company. Staff placed Sharon's body in a vessel filled with alfalfa, straw, sawdust, and notes from loved ones written in biodegradable ink. The speaker system played hymns commemorating Sharon's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the beginning of summer, only 400 kg of rich dark soil remained from their mother.

This natural organic reduction, better known as human composting, is the first truly new form of final disposal developed in decades. The process, first legalized in Washington State in 2019, has proven popular with some environmentally conscious Pacific Northwest consumers who want their last action on earth to be positive. They know that traditional burials involve literally tons of steel, concrete, and toxic chemicals, and that the heat of a cremation retort releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. For families like the Gerberdings, natural organic restoration, or NOR, promises a more gentle outcome.

Today, there are four NOR companies within an approximately 240 km radius of western Washington state, including Return Home, the company responsible for Sharon's remains. New markets are constantly opening up. NOR is now legal in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont. Activists hope New York will be next. But fans of this industry of death are facing opposition, including from the Catholic Church, which considers NOR "more suitable for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies." They're not the only ones: many people find the whole process a bit creepy.

Despite these problems, it is clear that the revolution of death continues. New body treatments, from NOR to alkaline hydrolysis, are on the rise. So is the home funeral movement, which seeks to return care of the dead to their families. New companies tend to be cost-competitive; in Return Home NOR costs about $5500 with the laying ceremony. This is about twice as much as the average cremation, but about half the price of a traditional burial and crypt burial.

Return Home staff have been working to demystify TikTok's NOR process by racking up over 5 million likes on videos of cartoon bones and skeletons. They have opened their facility to families, some of whom visit daily while composting their loved one. And they slowed down the funeral process: In Return Home, it takes at least two months for the body to turn into earth — much longer than the several chaotic days of traditional funerals that most families have to arrange, attend services and prepare the body. Return Home CEO Micah Truman says he wants to prove the new system "is way cooler."

Composting food is thousands of years old, but the idea of ​​actively converting human remains into a usable soil product is only ten years old. In 2013, Katrina Spade, an architecture student, proposed this idea in her thesis. “We have nutrients in our body,” Spade said. “What if we could grow new life after death?”

In her dissertation, Spade envisioned a "dark, quiet, and safe" space in which the natural work of decomposition can be scaled up for urban populations and managed in industrial settings. Think: green burial meets vertical farming. After graduation, Spade worked with soil scientists, lobbyists, and investors (worth more than $15 million) to make the case for legalization in Washington state and launch her own NOR company. It worked, and in May 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law.

By early 2021, Spade's Recompose firm was open for business. In Washington state, funeral home consumers can also contact Return Home, Herland Forest, and Earth.

Truman, the founder of Return Home, wears casual clothes: nondescript trousers, a button-down shirt, and a fleece vest. But he speaks in bizarre constructions that you wouldn't expect from a financier, let alone an actual funeral home owner. “We shouldn't be afraid of composting,” he says. - Bodies are just "soft and hard" objects. The process in Return Home is "like a Disney attraction, only weirder".

Truman often cries - he learned that this is an occupational risk in this new field of activity.

The original plan for Return Home was something like a ghost kitchen, but with human remains. People brought in the bodies, and Truman sent back the earth, just like a crematorium brings back the ashes. This determined the look of this place - the containers look like freezer chests in which hunters store game in their garage. They're stacked by the dozen on huge steel shelves, like big pallets of toilet paper at Costco.

To turn his vision into reality, Truman teamed up with John Paul of Transform Compost Systems, located near the Canadian border. Together they hired a manufacturer to build custom equipment for each step of the process. Over the course of 18 months, the international team experimented relentlessly, including with pig carcasses, a good substitute for the human body, as any MythBusters fan knows.

If anything, Truman could reverse engineer his system. He always wanted as many disparate parts as possible so that if something broke, he wouldn't have to ask the nearest electrician to disturb the corpse. But some jobs, such as separating large bones from medical devices, have proven easier to do by hand.

Truman was also gripped by heartache. Funeral industry veterans often say they experience the worst day of people's lives every day; now so does Truman. Spouses, children and parents trusted him with the people dearest to them. Faced with such grief, Truman decided that the ghost kitchen would never be able to deal with it. We need people to come. So he dried his eyes, turned photos of the forest into huge roll-up panels to cover Costco-style shelving, and opened the facility to families.

This past June, Return Home celebrated its business anniversary with an anniversary party at its warehouse in Auburn. It was a rare cloudless day, the kind the locals love.

Truman, wearing a shirt that said "I'd rather compost", was worried no one would show up. People don't necessarily want to remain friends with their funeral providers, he said. But dozens of visitors, including people who plan to one day compost themselves and loved ones of those who have just gone through the process, arrived in time, eager to learn more.

With a camera crew on his heels, Truman walked his guests through the warehouse, from the composting room to the soil rest area and back to where the HVAC system is located.

Back at the warehouse, the family collected their land in the middle of the party: several hundred kilograms of material stored in breathable burlap bags. Gerberding was at the party but left relatively early. She was excited to see Return Home develop, but it was overwhelming to be back in that space knowing her own mom was turning to earth and cooling off in another room.

In 1982, Sharon Gerberding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease progressed slowly at first, allowing her to continue working at the local health department and raise her children to adulthood. Later, when Sharon's condition worsened, she moved to an independent residential community and needed to use a wheelchair. At the very end, when her body began to break down, and it became more and more difficult to maintain her dignity, she chose hospice.

When Sharon died at the age of 75, Rachel Gerberding was at her bedside. She painted her mother's nails with a fresh coat of varnish, washed her hair, removed the urostomy bag from the stomach and bandaged the stoma. The nurse called Return Home and asked when the body would be picked up, and the person on the other end of the line told her they could send someone in now—or anytime within the next 24 hours. “It was the first real gift of compassion,” says Gerberding. After a few hours, she finally felt ready to let go of her mother's body.

When Sharon's remains were taken to Return Home, Gerberding received a phone call saying that her mom's body had arrived safely and her family had no choice but to mourn. A few days later, Gerberding and her siblings Sam Gerberding and Erica Roden held a conference call with Bree Smith, a licensed funeral director and COO of Return Home, to discuss the logistics of the ceremony.

In many ways, Return Home clients are establishing new rituals around death in real time. Often they don't know where to start. So Truman and his team give them their best ideas. “In the beginning, you say a lot of what you think people want you to say,” Smith says. “But in the end, you learn that they really need your guidance, they really need your input.”

When Truman calculated that the Return Home process would take two months, he thought his startup had already failed. Who wants such a long goodbye?

But the Gerberdings and other clients have used this flexibility to their advantage. They gathered in person to honor their mother's life over two weeks later. After the laying ceremony, the object remained open to them. On any given day, Return Home sees a handful of family members come to sit in front of their loved ones' vessels (which Brother Gerberding affectionately calls "terrariums") and read, play music, or pray.

“My mother died well, so to speak,” says Gerberding. “And we, as a family, had a really good experience saying goodbye to her, which is not always the case.”

As NOR expands to new states and encounters new cultures, the industry is bound to face new challenges. Companies need to do more to make sure every single ingredient, especially crushed bones, is truly bioavailable, says Walt Patrick of Herland Forest, a green graveyard in Washington's Cascade Mountains. They will also have to figure out how they provide their services to increasingly distant customers. After all, shipping the bodies to a centralized facility may seem worthwhile, but a single flight could easily negate any promises of carbon neutrality.

On August 9, Gerberding took Sharon's soil. The Return Home team packed the earth into several bags. Gerberding packed everything into the wheelchair van in which her mother traveled all her life. “We have another vehicle that has plenty of space and is much more fuel efficient,” she said. “But I felt that her last trip should be in a van that allowed her to enjoy the world outside of her apartment.”

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Gerberding had big plans for the soil. She planned to bring several dozen decorative pots with this material to Sawtooth National Forest State of Idaho for a Labor Day ceremony to honor her mother. There, everyone present would receive a decorative pot with a mother and an iris bulb, Sharon's favorite flower. But forest fires got in the way.

Instead, Gerberding will use the land in her own garden as she planned. Part of the land will go to feed the memorial garden planted by Gerberding at the nursing home where her mother spent the last two years of her life.

While people may be suspicious of human compost under their feet, Gerberding associates compost not with death but with life. Gerberding sees in her garden a "true living memory" of Sharon, who had the eye of a scientist, the warmth of a single mother of three, and an abiding love of nature. Now she will live among birds, bees and beloved irises.

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