Inside The Rise Of Human Composting

A new wave of eco-friendly funeral options is gaining traction. Companies like Return Home and Recompose, led by Micah Truman, are offering human composting as a sustainable and personal alternative to traditional burials and cremations.

Inside The Rise Of Human Composting 1

Blaire Van Valkenburgh was walking through the woods with lanterns dangling from both hands, visiting the dirt that used to be her husband. It was almost dark outside.

She strolled effortlessly through a maze of rocks and roots to a tiny glade that resembled a bowl and was barely visible from her kitchen window on Orcas Island, Washington. Robert Wayne, her husband of forty years, and she had intended to retire here. Subsequently, he received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

The place where friends and relatives had dumped seven burlap bags containing Wayne’s mulch-like remains and scraped them into a dry, sprawling puddle beneath the trees months earlier was now surrounded by towering Pacific madrone trees and Douglas fir, appearing like ghostly forms.

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Photographic memories include a wedding picture of Blaire Van Valkenburgh and her late husband of 40 years, Robert Wayne, at their home in Calabasas.

Just a few weeks before he passed away at their Calabasas home on December 26, 2022, Wayne decided on this “burial.” According to UCLA paleobiologist Van Valkenburgh, the pioneer of genetics enjoyed wandering in the woods and was always the first to test new things, “especially things that made sense from an environmental, Earth-friendly point of view.”

However, California won’t allow natural organic reduction burials until 2027, so Van Valkenburgh arranged for her husband’s body to be flown to Washington, which became the first state to allow human composting in 2020. Three months later, two ladies pulled up the bags of Wayne’s soil from the back seat of a Subaru they were driving to Orcas Island in. There were roughly 250 pounds of what appeared to be fine, odorless wood-chip mulch.

Van Valkenburgh apologized, stating that the land appears barren right now, but she plans to plant bulbs eventually. Her anguish was palpable in the awkward stillness that ensued, but then she abruptly flung back her head and peered up above the trees. Whispering, “This is what he sees,” she looked up at a purple-black sky that was gradually becoming speckled with stars.

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Blaire Van Valkenburgh scans the sky after placing lanterns around the area where her late husband’s “soil” rests in the woods outside their Washington state retirement home on Orcas Island.

Our last toxic act

Over the past century, American attitudes toward death and burial have undergone a significant transformation. Gone are the days when families interred loved ones in a plain box in the ground; instead, lavish, costly funerals involving lead or concrete grave liners, toxic embalming chemicals, and increasingly difficult-to-find land in urban areas are the norm.

However, cremation has become more popular among Americans over the past few decades due to its simplicity of use and significantly lower cost (61% in 2023). A straight cremation, meaning there is no service or extra decorations, can be arranged for less than $1,000, while the average cost of a burial in the nation is close to $8,000 (not counting cemetery fees for vaults and plots).

However, cremation is also a nightmare for the environment since it uses a lot of energy to burn bodies into a highly salted and alkaline ash that is harmful to soil and plants in large quantities. Additionally, the South Coast Air Quality Management District restricts the number of cremations that can be carried out each month in the largest metropolitan area in California because they release so much carbon dioxide. These restrictions had to be lifted in early 2021 when the death rate more than doubled as a result of COVID-19.

In her 2016 grant application to study the viability of composting human bodies in the US, pioneer of human composting Katrina Spade noted, “The truth is, the last gesture most of us will make on this earth is toxic.”

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All of the composting mortuaries have their acreage in Washington that has been set aside as places where families can leave their loved one’s soil; such as Return Home’s eight-acre conservation site it calls the Woodland, near their facility in Auburn.

We seem to be headed for another significant change, according to Sarah Chavez, the creator of the Death Positive movement, which promotes “honest conversations” about death and dying, as 60% of Americans now say they would prefer greener options for burial.

“The funeral industry did not exist more than a century ago. People cared for their own deceased, according to Chavez. She continued, “We’ve outsourced that job over the years, to our detriment,” as if taking a corpse away would somehow make up for our loss.

“[Human] composting resonates with a growing number of people who see it as a way to give back to the earth; a way of making their final act a meaningful one and being part of a more unique, family-led funeral that will truly honor the lives of their persons, and who they truly were,” Chavez said.

Nine states have approved a natural organic reduction in addition to Washington: Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, New York, Nevada, Arizona, Maryland, Delaware, and California. At least twelve other states have proposed laws.

Cristina Garcia, a former assemblywoman, claimed to have written California’s legislation and spent three years influencing other lawmakers because she believed the state’s citizens should have more options for eco-friendly funerals.

“I love the outdoors and I really want to be a tree in my afterlife,” she said. “My family has a crypt in Mexico, where there are no trees or shade around …. I want my soil to be used specifically for a plum tree, my favorite fruit, and my loved ones can visit me there.”

Although Garcia agreed to the 2027 date to allay worries from the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, which desired more time to establish regulations, she stated that she would have preferred a much faster start date for California’s bill. “I didn’t want to risk it not getting passed,” she said.

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Return Home CEO Micah Truman, left, and services manager Katey Houston, second from left, pose by a demonstration terramation vessel and mannequin, with Lauren Williams, far right, operations manager of Return Home’s new Southern California partner, Clarity Funerals & Cremation in Anaheim. Chris Brown, second from right, is the services manager for Clarity, one of Southern California’s largest crematoriums, whose owners have embraced human composting as a more earth-friendly form of burial.

A ‘death care’ revolution

Though it has angered potential users, the fact that California’s law won’t take effect until 2027 hasn’t stopped them. Californians in particular, who are either driving or flying their departed loved ones north, are a consistent source of business for Washington’s three natural organic reduction mortuaries.

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An unembalmed body is put in a vessel filled with organic materials such as wood chips, sawdust, straw, alfalfa, and flowers.  (Joel Kimmel / For The Times)

Human composting can cost anything from $4,950 at Earth and Return Home to $7,000 at Recompose, depending on the mortuary. In addition, expenses for transportation and getting an unembalmed body ready for safe shipping must be covered by out-of-state residents. Southern Californians are charged $6,950 by Return Home’s partner Clarity, in addition to the $410 air freight cost to transport the body to Seattle, taxes, and security screening expenses. Because it is closer to the region, Earth will only charge Southern Californians $4,950 when its facility in Nevada opens, with no additional shipping fees, according to communications director Haley Morris.

Furthermore, every morgue has a distinct atmosphere and proprietary procedures.

Earth, located in Auburn, Washington, claims to have the fastest composting, taking between 30 and 45 days at a facility where 78 vessels are piled three high in an area known as the “laying-in area.” Clean and with walls painted a light green, the area is purposefully large to allow for expansion, according to John Lawrence, the facilities manager. 200 bodies were taken care of by Earth in its first year. “Our goal,” he said, “is to make this available to as many people as possible.”

According to Lawrence, few families ask for in-house services, but for those who do, white folding chairs are arranged in a roomy corner.

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Earth facility manager John Lawrence walks past rows of spaces for vessels stacked three high at the facility in Auburn, Wash.
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The threshold vessel, at right, where a body will pass through at the end of a ceremony and the transformation into the soil will begin, at Recompose.

Recompose, located in south Seattle, offers an artistic and tranquil environment for families to bid farewell to their loved ones. The facility features a quiet room where families can prepare their loved one’s body before it undergoes the composting process. Services are held in a high-ceilinged room with a chapel-like atmosphere, adorned with tall, narrow inserts of green glass that offer glimpses into the adjacent room where the bodies are composted. A short tunnel, inscribed with a poignant message, connects the two rooms, symbolizing the transition from life to composting.

Return Home, based in Auburn, provides a more intimate and personalized experience for families. Earth and Recompose don’t require families to return until the soil is ready for delivery, allowing them space and time for reflection. Services manager Katey Houston reads stories to children undergoing the composting process, providing comfort and solace. Return Home also offers families the opportunity to personalize the vessels of their loved ones with photos and drawings, fostering a sense of connection and closure.

Terramation, a term trademarked by CEO Micah Truman, represents a gentle and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation. Truman aims to alleviate the fear surrounding death by providing a more natural and comforting option. Return Home’s approach includes dressing bodies in cotton gowns and allowing families to visit and interact with their loved ones during the composting process, offering solace and closure.

The process of terramation, while still unfamiliar to many, has garnered interest and approval from individuals like McKelle Hilber, who found comfort in knowing she could honor her son’s wishes in a gentle and environmentally conscious manner. Lauren Williams of Clarity Funerals emphasizes the beauty and sustainability of terramation, contrasting it with the perceived negativity of cremation. Despite initial apprehension, individuals like Heidi Heffington found peace and solace in the process, cherishing the serene and natural environment in which their loved ones were laid to rest.

Terramation offers a profound and meaningful way to honor loved ones, providing comfort, closure, and a sense of connection to the earth. Through personalized services and environmentally friendly practices, facilities like Return Home and Recompose strive to create a peaceful and gentle transition for both the deceased and their families, fostering healing and acceptance in the face of loss.

Making a plan

At the age of 71, Wayne Thomas Dodge was a semiretired physician and passionate gardener. He passed away on September 5, 2021. And his family’s idea for his soil was influenced by his love of Japanese maples.

Dodge tripped and fell backward while moving a crate of books down some steps in the Seattle home that he and his husband, architectural scholar Lawrence “Larry” Kreisman, had lived in for almost 40 years. Kreisman described how his once-active husband suddenly became a quadriplegic in constant agony and required round-the-clock care. Wayne had pneumonia a few months later and declined medical attention.

“He had been living for me because I wasn’t ready,” Kreisman said. But he did not lead a happy life. He was done.”

Dodge had switched from cremation to human composting before the fall, so Kreisman and his sister-in-law, Marie Eaton, called Recompose. When it came time to fill the vessel, Recompose included a staghorn fern Dodge had been raising for 50 years. The service was performed via Zoom during the pandemic. Eaton claimed that “it died when he died and became part of his soil.”

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A photograph of Kreisman and his late husband Dodge, right, inside their home in Seattle.
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Kreisman sitting at home in Seattle.

Dodge possesses around forty-five different types of Japanese maples, the majority of which are grown in pots. Dodge proposed to his husband that Kreisman give away his potted plants before he passed away because his domain had always been inside.

So, a few months later, Eaton and Kreisman covered a pickup’s bed with a tarp and added Dodge’s soil to it. They parked it in front of the couple’s house and asked their neighbors, friends, and family to bring some dirt and a tree. Eaton remarked, “So my brother is planted all over Seattle.”

Kreisman used the remaining soil to fill a gorgeous copper basin. These days, he keeps it in the kitchen, close to the stained glass windows that face out over a backyard scattered with maple trees of all shapes and sizes.

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Kreisman picks up a handful of soil from his late husband Dodge, who died in 2021, at home in Seattle.

“It’s like having him around in some fashion that is not him, but still nurturing,” Kreisman said.

Kreisman grasped the dirt lovingly, feeling its warmth in the light. The couple was shown in a picture nearby, with Dodge’s chin resting on his husband’s shoulder and his eyes closed in what appeared to be bliss. At that moment, Truman’s remarks from Return Home made sense: “The first thing someone does when they receive soil? They put their arms around it.”

Previously, GreatGameIndia reported on StoryFile, which employs 20 cameras and poses 250 questions to a subject just before passing away. It then creates a digital clone of deceased loved ones that can chat with mourners at their own funeral.

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  1. Just another mentally deranged idea from the “gods” that rule this planet!
    And, as usual, all MORONS obey their “gods” from Hell!
    Satan laughs! He didn’t even have to work up a sweat stealing Earth!
    The MORONS absolutely GAVE it to him and his Children, the “gods”!
    “As ye reap, so shall ye sow!” says the Bible!
    YE have reaped badly, COWARDS!
    Now I’ll laugh as YE sow!
    Enjoy Hell! 🤡

  2. Throw Me On The Compost Heap
    Throw me on the compost heap
    My old Nan used to say
    No fancy funeral for me
    When I pass away
    They are a waste of money
    A complete waste of time
    I don’t want you wasting money on funerals
    Especially if it’s mine
    Just put me in a bin bag
    Or maybe some old sack
    Tie it up with a piece of string
    And throw me out the back
    Indeed, she did end up out the back
    Helping the daffodils grow
    Though we did have her cremated first
    I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know.

  3. I suspect a large percentage of those choosing this option have taken the Jonestown jab. Who wants spike proteins, contaminated prions and altered dna in their soil, especially if they are going to plant a fruit tree in that soil? Yuk. Deer and elk ranches found to contain mad deer (bovine CJD) prions are banned from ever using that property again, due to prion contaminated soil. Notice that the article said California had to temporarily suspend their restrictions on cremations due to increased deaths in 2021. Hmmm…I wonder why deaths spiked in 2021…but not 2020?

  4. One tends to think that a high percentage of those choosing this option have taken the Jonestown jab. Who wants spike proteins, contaminated prions and altered dna in the soil in which they plant fruit trees? Yuk. Deer and elk ranches that are found to be contaminated with mad deer (bovine CJD) prions, are prohibited from ever using the property again, due to contaminated soil.

    Notice the article mentions temporary bypassing of cremation restrictions, due to a surge of deaths in 2021. Hmmm…now why would deaths be surging in 2021…but not 2020?

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