Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dirt

Washington set to be the first state to allow the composting of human bodies.

An artist's rendering of a future recompose facility.
An artist’s rendering of a future recompose facility.
Molt Studios via Recompose

I live in Seattle, where we take being green very seriously. Our electric utility, Seattle City Light, was the first in the nation to reach carbon neutral status. In 2012, we started requiring retail stores to charge customers 5 cents per plastic bag. We’ve got a goal of recycling or composting 70 percent of all our city waste by 2022.

Seattleites may soon be able to compost more than our food scraps and yard waste: The Washington State Legislature just voted to pass SB 5001, a new bill legalizing “natural organic reduction” of human remains—a fancy way of saying “composting bodies.”

For years, funeral industry professionals and consumers alike have been advocating for more sustainable afterlife options: green burials that forgo caskets and the toxic chemicals used in traditional embalming, sea burials, even getting digested by mushrooms. Recompose, a Washington-based company, has been developing a “recomposition” method to compost bodies in about a month. It says the process uses just one-eighth the amount of energy cremation requires and saves a metric ton of CO2 per person. And Seattleites are apparently eager for the option: According to Recompose’s founder and CEO Katrina Spade, while the new bill was being considered, “I heard from one person in her 90s who called her senators and told them to please hurry on up and vote yes.” (Full disclosure: I organized a 2017 Seattle event on the good death where Spade was one of the speakers.)

Up until now, the legality of the composting process was a hurdle for Recompose. Many states permit only three ways of dealing with dead bodies: Burying them, cremating them, or donating them to science. Washington’s move opens the door for other states to follow suit in permitting composting. (With this bill, Washington also joins 16 other states that have already legalized alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “water cremation,” a process in which a body is dissolved by heating it up in a mixture of lye and water.) But there are still major details to be worked out: For instance, the state’s Department of Licensing will need to create regulations for this new industry, and Recompose will need to find a physical home for its facility.

A composted person ends up being a cubic yard of soil. (Imagine a container the size of two washing machines side by side—that’s a cubic yard.) Your average dump truck holds 10 to 14 cubic yards, or roughly 10 to 14 people. To start, soil will be offered to friends and family “to grow a tree or a garden,” according to Recompose’s FAQs. Spade tells me that they’re still working on the details, but that loved ones will also have a choice to donate the remaining soil to several partner organizations. “We have had some organizations express interest, but are in very early stages of discussion,” says Spade. “They would use the soil to help build the land, especially in areas that need restoring, such as a forest that was logged improperly over the decades.”

It’s a lovely idea for the dead to be returned to the land. But are the living ready for that?

Just the idea of composting bodies has been met with pushback. In 2015, a New York Times piece about what was then called the Urban Death Project included comments from the project’s website. One read: “This MUST be a joke. If not, there’s only one word which could possibly describe your activities: SICK.” Another: “A pile of bodies is usually called a ‘mass grave.’ Please stop what you’re doing.”

I’d guess human composting critics would be even less thrilled if they were ever to come in contact with the resulting soil. Even people who have no problem with human composting might be a little squicked out by the prospect. It’s one thing to say you’re in favor of this sustainable option that returns people to the earth; it’s another to be confronted with a cubic yard of soil that used to be a person. If you want to be pedantic, then yes, all soil probably contains some amount of dead people in it. But this soil would be fairly recently dead people—like, people who were alive as recently as a month ago. There’s no science-based reason the recency of the dead in the soil should give us pause—Recompose plans to screen compostees for non-organics, like metal implants and potentially contagious diseases—but part of what makes us human is the meaning we ascribe to the world around us. And given that death is one of the few truly universal human experiences, it’s no wonder that we’ve developed a range of beliefs, traditions, and superstitions as reverence for its power.

The prospect of human-based soil throws an interesting wrench into many of the beliefs about respecting the dead that are popular in the U.S. Restoring a forest with the soil is a use that minimizes contact with living humans: It’s far from urban centers, and, if you believe there’s some essence of human in that soil, it leaves the dead mostly untouched. One friend told me she’d feel strange hiking or camping there and would want to avoid walking on it, if at all possible. She compared it to the reverence people feel in graveyards, where you might tiptoe around gravesites rather than walking on top. There’s a natural reticence to disturb the peace of the dead in whatever form they take.

Using the soil to grow something evokes more nuanced and varied reactions. My friend Alisha told me she’d be weirded out by having human-based soil in the house, but would be happy to use it to grow something outside. Another friend, Jaime, has always liked the idea of being a tree, but wouldn’t want to use soil from a loved one to grow something. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he says. “Like, if I’m growing a plant in my uncle’s compost, and the plant dies, what does that say about me?” He wouldn’t want any of his loved ones to get his compost, either, but would rather have it donated to a park or garden—“something nice, beautiful, and/or helpful.”

My mom, on the other hand, was just extremely distressed by the entire premise, using the words “horrible” and “scary” over and over as we discussed it. (It’s worth noting that my mom even calls the plant-based compost in my home gross, so this comes as no surprise.) “Imagine you planted a flower at the front door using somebody’s soil—horrible!” she said. “People have feelings. It’s the same species as you. It’s disgusting.” It’s clear she felt there was an essence of person still in that soil, and she wanted nothing to do with it. She’s not alone: In 2015, Cara Bayles wrote in Slate about how many people view composting bodies as sacrilegious. It would follow, then, that the resulting soil would just be concrete evidence of that sacrilege.

My mom’s mind immediately jumped to growing food with the soil, which distressed her even more. To be clear, Recompose has never included crop-growing among its stated intentions for the soil, but it’s an obvious use for soil. Municipal compost from major cities gets used in agriculture; for instance, Napa and Sonoma wineries buy up the rich compost made from San Francisco’s food waste. There are no regulations or laws about soil made from human remains yet, but there likely will be by the time Recompose’s process is commercially viable.

In theory, for maximum sustainability it makes sense to use human-based soil to grow sustenance, even if it’s on a small scale like in a personal garden. After all, soil is soil. But the mind can’t help but wonder about the meaning of that soil. If growing a tree from a loved one’s remains is a way to keep their memory alive, what does it mean to eat something that grows from that plant? Is it, in some way, them? Would it be more respectful to avoid the yield of that plant, or to enjoy it and let it nourish you? Like all end-of-life choices, the symbolism is deeply personal. And as recomposition catches on, we’ll surely imbue the ensuing soil with new meaning, rituals, and taboos.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.