Humans do strange things with our dead.
In the U.S., around half of us these days are cremated, a process that involves searing the body in a 1700 degree oven and then grinding the leftover bones with something called a cremulator, which acts a bit like a blender. What remains after the bones are ground into a gritty, sandy, dusty, chunky mix can, of course, then be scattered over land or water, stored in urns that evoke the deceased person's life (a bowling pin for a bowler, a toolbox for builder), or, perhaps most likely, be stowed in a closet and forgotten about. And that's the less strange way we deal with the dead.
For the other half of us, at least in America, our breathless bodies are drained of blood, pumped full of chemicals, sewn up, painted with makeup, dressed in our Sunday best, and then laid to rest in a casket, which is then placed in a plastic-lined concrete vault. This is meant to stave off decomposition and prevent leakage, and it does for a while, but eventually, the body, now filled with toxic chemicals, will break down. Given enough time, everything does.
Our two main options for death, burial and cremation, are hardly ideal. For one, they're wasteful. Each year, for instance, we bury over 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 750,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and 90,000 tons of steel. That's as much steel as it took to build the Golden Gate bridge, but instead of building bridges, we're burying that steel underground. And cremation, the more ecological of the two options, isn't all that much better. Most crematoria are fueled by gasoline and burning bodies emits soot, carbon monoxide, and trace metals like mercury. Each cremation, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, takes 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide. It adds up. And it ain't cheap either. The average cost of a burial is between $7,000 and $10,000. Cremation, while much less expensive, is still between $2,000 and $4,000 on average, less if you bring your own urn.
There are a few other options: green burial, for instance, or burial at sea, or leaving your grandfather in a field and letting the vultures have at him. (This is what they do in Tibet, a practice known as "sky burial" and it's not exactly legal in the U.S.) But for the most part, if you die this year, you're going to be either conventionally buried or cremated. That's it.
But this could soon change, at least in Washington state, which is poised to become the first state to allow a new and different way of dealing with the dead: human composting.
Known as recomposition, this idea is the brainchild of Katrina Spade, a Seattle-based designer who began thinking about alternative burial methods while studying architecture in graduate school.
Spade realized that cities were running out of burial space and so people who wanted to be buried had to be shipped out of town. And this, in itself, makes perfect sense: Cities should be for the living, not for the dead (think about all the housing you could build in Lake View Cemetery) but cities should also be able to deal with the dead rather than shipping them somewhere else. Spade decided to build something new, and for the last six years, she's been working with Washington State University and Western Carolina University in North Carolina to figure out the best way to compost human bodies.
This may sound gruesome, but it's quite the opposite. The bodies don't need to be drained or burned; instead, they get wrapped in a simple shroud and laid in a container over a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, all materials that help speed the decomposition process. In a matter of weeks, what's left is about a cubic yard of soil, not unlike the compost you'd make in your own backyard. This soil could either be taken home by the deceased's loved ones or spread in public parks, so your body is quite literally fertilizing the planet.
This is not, at the moment, legal anywhere in the U.S. But this year, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen is introducing a bill to change that. As NBC News first reported, this bill would expand the options for disposing of remains in Washington state, paving the way both for recomposition, which the bill defines as "the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil," as well as alkaline hydrolysis, a process that my former colleague Sean Nelson described last year as "cremation by water instead of fire." (While not yet legal for humans, you can get your pets cremated by water at Resting Waters in West Seattle.)
Sen. Pedersen did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he told NBC News that Washingtonians are interested in these new methods. “People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves,” Pedersen said. And it's not hard to see why: Our current system doesn't work for a lot of people. Besides the cost and the waste of conventional burial and cremation, for many, the idea of becoming soil after death—something the nourishes the earth rather than depletes it—is comforting. There’s a simple beauty in going back to the earth.
Spade says the response in the legislature, so far, has been positive. “The worst response we've had so far in Olympia is a giggle," Spade told me. "In general, people see that it's practical. And why shouldn't we have as many options as possible?"
If all goes well in the state legislature, Spade hopes to open Recompose Seattle in 2020. She envisions the space as more than a funeral home. "We also want to have concerts and poetry readings and other events so it's not just a place that you come only when people die. We want it to be part of the community." She's currently raising money to make this happen, and once it's established in Seattle, Spade hopes the trend will grow from there.
Perhaps conventional funeral homes will adopt the technology. This won't, of course, be easy. There are 49 other states that will require legislative changes to make recomposition legal nationwide, but as Spade points out, Washington was the first to legalize recreational cannabis, a movement that has spread widely from here. And if weed can be legalized after decades of prohibition, there's no reason to think recomposition can't as well. Maybe when it’s your time to go, instead of being buried or burned, you'll be spread in your favorite park or even in your own backyard. You won’t be ashes; you won’t be dust. You’ll go back to the earth as soil.