Are You Ready to Be Composted When You Die?

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Speaker 1: What is terror nation? Well, it’s also known as human composting. And here return.

Lizzie O’Leary: Home.

Speaker 1: We gently transform human remains into life giving soil.

Lizzie O’Leary: I was wondering if you had spent any time on return poems Tik-tok page.

Speaker 1: I have a little bit. They’re very passionate about it, so they sent me quite a few directly.

Lizzie O’Leary: Eleanor Cummins is a science journalist. She recently wrote about the human composting movement and one of the companies return home at the forefront, which has a pretty dynamic Tik-tok page. Today’s question is Does human composting require the use of worms or bugs of any kind?

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Speaker 1: And I’ve got the answer.

Lizzie O’Leary: The answer is no, by the way. I asked Eleanor how accurate she thought the Tiktoks were.

Speaker 1: Having been inside the facility and seeing some of us a little bit closer. I think that they’re pretty accurate and I think that that is a real break from tradition in terms of the way that the funeral industry has typically related to public education, which is like we’re not going to talk about this at all in any way ever, including if directly asked. And I think also, you know, it’s pretty fun. I think they have like a good sort of sense of of what a popular TikTok is like.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Yeah. Hashtag human composting, right?

Speaker 1: Absolutely. Who could resist?

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Lizzie O’Leary: Today on the show, Eleanor is going to take us inside the world of human composting, a movement that’s pushing for a greener way of returning us all to the earth. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to What Next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future in this case, maybe our literal future will be determined. Stick around.

Lizzie O’Leary: If you’ve ever composted your kitchen scraps or garden clippings, you are probably familiar with the basic process. It requires greens, a.k.a. your nitrogen rich leftover broccoli stems or apple peels and browns, the carbon rich stuff like dry leaves or woodchips when they get together. Microbes get to work and things start to break down. When it comes to natural organic reduction, a.k.a. human composting. The process is surprisingly similar. A body is washed and dressed in a biodegradable gown, then placed in the composting vessel at Return home, which Elinor visited for her recent article for The Verge. The vessels look like giant picnic coolers.

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Speaker 1: Really, anything biodegradable can sort of be placed alongside it. So you’ll have family adding, you know, love notes or, you know, I remember the first time I ever met the CEO, Mike, He was like, you can put anything in love notes or ham sandwiches and the body and all of those other sort of materials are placed on a bed of alfalfa, sawdust and straw. And so that’s going to be sort of the browns of the compost, if you will, and the bodies, the greens, the vessel is closed and all of the microbes in your stomach are actually going to do the work of decomposition. So when those microbes are no longer eating our food, digesting that for us, they start to digest us. So those microbes, they really just need a little bit of heat moisture and a lot of oxygen so that they can perform what’s called aerobic digestion.

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Lizzie O’Leary: After about a month in the vessel, most of the body has broken down into what just looks like dirt. The bones are then removed and crushed into smaller pieces, then placed back in the vessel.

Speaker 1: And so that last stage is sort of letting the soil rest. So there’s an additional sort of month where the temperature in the vessel comes down, the the sort of material start to solidify into what we would recognize the soil. And, you know, 60 days later, what you’ll have is a totally safe pathogen, free soil that can be used to grow a tree or, you know, nourish a garden like it’s really can be used in any way that other soil could be.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The end product looks not unlike a fine grained mulch. If you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was from a garden store. There was one woman in your story who referred to the. Soil product at the end as mum post.

Speaker 1: Yes. Yes. I spoke with a family who has done this process recently that returned home the Gerber Dings, and Rachel was one of the funniest sources I’ve ever met. It was very meaningful to her to be able to do the human composting process, but she also knew that she was doing something kind of funny and spooky, and she really liked that. And so, yes, she called the product mom post. Her brother called the vessel their mother’s terrarium. They had all of these sorts of of names and kind of inside jokes about about this process. And, yeah, I think that they were really happy with with sort of the end product because as Rachel said to me, you know, I’m going to be able to use this in my garden and feel like my mother is with me. And, you know, every time I’m tending to my plants.

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Lizzie O’Leary: You spent some time at the return home facility. I wonder if you could tell me, just like, what does it look like? What’s it like inside? Were people in there kind of spending time with their loved ones vessels?

Speaker 1: It’s not much to look at from the outside. It just sort of looks like a hangar style facility like any other. And it’s surrounded by like scrap metal recyclers and RV repairmen. And when you enter, you’re in this sort of nondescript little office area. But if you pass through that, you open into this huge, you know, tall facility where sort of the first time I went, there were these kind of Costco like, you know, like bookcases that stretched all the way up to the ceiling. But instead of like the toilet paper, it was these vessels for composting human bodies. Wow. And so that sort of the front of house where that first 30 days unfolds.

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Speaker 1: Right. And the body is being sort of actively digested. Then if you kind of go farther into the facility, there’s an additional set of rooms. And back there is where that second, you know, month long process of processing the bones and then kind of letting that soil rest takes place. And that looks like a kind of like a warehouse facility like any other.

Lizzie O’Leary: The process of composting, a human body might seem unsettling or even gross, but it’s also slower and less abrupt than having a body taken away to be embalmed or cremated, returned home. The staff quickly realized that people actually wanted to spend that extra time sitting with the vessels and grieving their loved ones.

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Speaker 1: So now over those sort of Costco style shelves, you’ll see these beautiful panels of sort of greenery like printed forest that can move back and forth so they can still do all the work of natural organic reduction. But it looks very bright and welcoming. They’ve set out sort of little kind of areas where families can sit in front of the vessels. They have, you know, a Sonos like surround speaker system so you can play whatever sort of music you want. People bring books, guitars, like truly, however you you want to spend your time there. They’ve they’ve really made space for that. But yeah, you know, and sort of it’s bare bones, but it’s one of the most, you know, industrial spaces.

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Speaker 1: I’ve spent an extended amount of time and I thought that juxtaposition was so fascinating, right? The sort of mechanical work that has to go into mimicking this natural process.

Lizzie O’Leary: Traditionally, the burial process in the U.S. involves, you know, embalming and preserving the body. And I would imagine in this case that there is none of that. Right, because it has to decompose. What what’s the environmental impact of this process? I guess that must have been appealing to the people who chose to do this.

Speaker 1: The traditional American Christian funeral has a lot of sort of upfront environmental costs. You know, according to its critics, what you’ll find is that, you know, traditionally the body was embalmed and that involves, you know, a carcinogen called formaldehyde. And it’s literally designed to stop the body from breaking down. Also, in traditional embalming, you know, you’d be placed inside a wood casket that’s also trying to prevent you from breaking down. That casket would be then placed in a concrete burial chamber that’s trying to prevent you from breaking down. So all of this is sort of turned on its head that human composting. And the goal is actually how quickly can we sort of accelerate this process of returning to soil, so to speak? So I think that environmentally, that’s a huge pull, especially in the Pacific Northwest where where I’m from. And I think that, you know, some of the ways that they have created a greener process are obviously they’re removing a lot of these, you know, sort of permanent elements from burial, like the casket. They are reusing the vessels.

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Speaker 1: Right. They have a sort of standard set. One person passes through in about 30 days. The next person can then come in. You know, the facilities tend to be run on, you know, green energy that’s purchased from the grid so that it’s kind of contributing to this carbon neutral premise. And then all of the sort of outputs from the process are also scrubbed on the back end. So any emission coming out of. Facility are are going to be also sort of fairly neutral because they’ve been able to kind of ground, you know, sort of carbon emissions. Also, just, you know, the smelly sort of volatile organic compounds that make the smell of decomposition And all of those things are being strained before it’s released. So they’ve really tried to reduce the impact at every stage.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The people you met who were were doing this or who were mourning their loved ones. Tell me about them. Were they religious? Were they from. The same socioeconomic group with a different like, give me some biographical sketches here. Sure.

Speaker 1: So from what I understand, in having sort of orbited returned home for the better part of a year, they have a fairly diverse clientele. I think that, you know, I’ve heard about every sort of funeral from, you know, a sort of Hawaiian, you know, family to the family that I covered in my story for The Verge, who were Mormon. So really running the gamut, I think that they have had a younger clientele than they expected.

Speaker 1: And that was also part of what made this experience so emotional for the people running the company is that I think a lot of young people who for whatever reason, have, you know, terminal diagnoses, are calling them up and saying, promise me you’ll take my body. And so a lot of people in their thirties and forties have have sort of opted in. But I think that what people do have been common is a sense that this is going to give them the control over over the process that they’re looking for, as in the body isn’t whisked away. The process is in a sort of pre-made package that that takes very little of the sort of family’s personal details into consideration.

Speaker 1: You know, all of those are things that I think that we can say, you know, we would be critical of the traditional American funeral industry as it exists. It’s like, how do we do this from scratch? And I think people want to be a part of that because it makes them feel like they’re actually a part of something, which I think that, you know, other sort of methods of burial have kind of obviated that that role for for the living.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The people you talk to who either, you know, we’re thinking about this for themselves or who were they’re thinking about their loved ones. Why did they choose to do this?

Speaker 1: The people that I have spoken to most directly, I think, chose it because it felt like it resonated with them spiritually. So it’s a very technical process. And that’s what I was interested in, right, is how does this work get done? But in talking to people, I think it’s something that they had a feeling might align with their values. And and those values can be, you know, sort of multitudinous like.

Speaker 1: Right, like environmental values, but also just like taking time, doing something a little new. I think that they often see themselves as sort of pioneering spirits as well, like willing to experiment and kind of think non traditionally. And I think too, you know, there’s a lot of this that it’s seen in opposition often, right. To be sort of traditional American Christian burial. But I think it also is in many ways kind of a return of other indigenous practices of values from, you know, Judaism and Islam, which are focused on, you know, getting the body into the ground as soon as possible in sort of the least mediated form. So I think that that people are kind of attracted to it for those reasons where it feels it feels simple, clean, generative and a little bit pathbreaking.

Lizzie O’Leary: Natural organic reduction was first legalized in 2019 in Washington, where return home is located. Since then, it’s slowly expanded to Oregon, California, Colorado and Vermont. In New York, the state legislature passed a bill approving human composting, but it’s been sitting with the governor for about a year.

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Speaker 1: I think that advocates would like to see this in as many states as possible, but that’s going to take time because they have to take one state on every legislative cycle. And it does take a lot of sort of resources to convince people, you know, that this is something worth doing.

Lizzie O’Leary: How much does it cost?

Speaker 1: The process costs between 5000 $507,000 right now, depending on which company you go with, That’s.

Lizzie O’Leary: Cheaper than the average funeral.

Speaker 1: It is yes. It is cheaper than the sort of full on traditional American funeral, but it is significantly more than direct cremation, which we’re seeing, you know, a rise in as well. I think the reason that people would sort of evaluate those two and go with human composting is that cremation is also an environmental sort of hazard, if you will. The average cremation releases about £500 of carbon emissions through that intense flame generating process. And so I think that people are kind of measuring it against all of these things.

Lizzie O’Leary: How big an industry are we talking about? Like, is there any way to gauge the growth of the industry? And I guess also the demand?

Speaker 1: I think that the business element of this has really not been worked out. I think we’re seeing it happen in real time where these companies are trying to figure out what is a sustainable sort of rate of growth for them. What’s happening is that we’re seeing companies that are really determined to scale rapidly. I spoke, for example, with a company called Earth, and their idea is that, you know, in the next. Two years or so, depending on, you know, sort of factors like the recession. They would like to have regional hubs all over the country and that they would be able to bring sort of anybody in a few hundred mile radius to that facility, compost everyone there in a sort of direct cremation style, and then ship the remains back to the family in the form of that soil.

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Speaker 1: So, you know, I think that they’re hoping that they alone could have a capacity in the low thousands, but that will definitely take time. But I also think we can expect to see in the next few years is that as this process sort of steadily legalizes, I think a lot of local funeral homes are going to purchase one or two units and provide the process in-house alongside traditional burial and other options.

Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, Big Death is pretty skeptical of human composting. Natural organic production, still a very new industry in Eleanor’s reporting process. She got a remarkably candid look at how a return home was ironing out both technical problems and human ones. The company’s CEO, Micah Truman, was blunt about how surprised he was by some of the emotional challenges in his work.

Speaker 1: He’d spent the 18 months prior, you know, working on really technical problems, right? Like, how do you get this done and do it efficiently? So he was working with, you know, sort of bespoke manufacturers. They were developing machines that had never existed before, very like, you know, engineering sort of nose to the grindstone kind of energy. Then that first month I met him in August of 2021 or thereabouts. He had taken on his first few customers and was just, I think, blown away by what it was like to be there for people in the hardest times of their life and to see already what the process meant to them and the level of participation that they got to have, you know, and sort of preparing their loved one’s body, you know, celebrating their life and then, you know, kind of keeping tabs on this composting process.

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Speaker 1: So as he moved forward from there, I think that the questions became less about the engineering and more about the sort of user experience, really. Right. Like what is it like to have a loved one going through this process and how can we make it better for people? So that’s where you see these changes from this very industrial looking facility to a sort of warmer and more, you know, living person focused one. You see, you know, the sort of open invitation to families to visit whenever they would like. And I think to it has raised business questions for for Micah. Right. Because if he wants to, you know, do this in a way that is very human and humane, I think that that changes the equation about how many people, you know, he can process at one time. I think that he has it. Really? Yeah. Iron that out for himself.

Lizzie O’Leary: Obviously, this is in a handful of states now. But one of the things that is really interesting to me is, I guess the potential for it to be in other places. Do you see it as a potential disruption to the way American death works at a mass scale?

Speaker 1: I think that’s a great question and it’s a hard one to answer because of the way that the system works. So I think that this sort of state by state, you know, kind of approval and legislation is a real challenge. There’s an analog here in a process called alkaline hydrolysis, which is also known as acclimation. And it’s a way of dissolving a body that’s legal in 20 or 25 states now. And that took like 20 years of effort to get it legalized. And in about half of states, I think that natural organic reduction will probably move a little bit faster. But I think that it will still take time to push it through one by one.

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Speaker 1: I think that the New York bill is a great example of that, right? Like the assembly approved it and the governor hasn’t signed it. And the it’s sort of an open question as to why that is. I think that there is some resistance from the traditional funeral industry who sort of feel as if, yes, they are being disrupted and aren’t necessarily too pleased about it. And then I think you’re also seeing resistance from a few sort of, you know, interest groups like the Catholic Church who feel that this is sort of a desecration of the body.

Speaker 1: But given all of those challenges, I think that we are going to see this continue to spread in terms of like, you know, the actual number of available units to customers. I think that greener burial is an American value that is really becoming well articulated and something that has a lot of services actually attached to it now. So I think that that is sort of an unstoppable force. And even the most traditional funeral director would sort of acknowledge, right, that this is where the sort of trends are heading.

Lizzie O’Leary: Yeah. I mean, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the funeral business, like how how big is it? How powerful is it?

Speaker 1: It’s an incredibly powerful force and all the more so because people don’t want to think about or talk about it. So it sort of operates with impunity around here.

Lizzie O’Leary: Do what you got to do.

Speaker 1: Yes, exactly. I think people are like, I don’t want to know anything about that. So I’m going to assume that everything is working smoothly. And the answer in a lot of cases could not be farther from the truth. This sort of state by state regulation has created a system where there’s immense regulatory capture. So instead of regulating in favor of consumers, the industry has been able to regulate in its own favor. So this is where you got these astronomical prices for, you know, the sort of typical traditional funeral, which is running people like $10,000 today. It’s because the industry has created these circumstances under which it’s not possible to do it cheaper.

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Speaker 1: I think one great example is in New York State, there’s a system where every funeral director, even if they don’t offer embalming, even if that’s not a service that they want to provide people, has to maintain access to an embalming facility. And so the overhead on that is like, you know, I think a figure I’ve seen put on that is like an additional $25,000 a year just to have access to a facility you may never use. That then becomes a cost for the consumer where, you know, every little one of these laws, which no one has ever taken the time to look at or challenge, becomes an additional fee that we’re paying when, you know, we’re in distress. Our loved one has died and we’ve got to get their body, you know, taken care of in one way or another.

Lizzie O’Leary: How is the industry responding as a whole, or is it to to A.R. And it’s kind of emergence.

Speaker 1: I think that for now, it feels to them fairly contained.

Lizzie O’Leary: These weird hippies are doing this on the West Coast, whatever.

Speaker 1: Totally. And I think that the the sort of place that it’s emerging from is already some of the most progressive funeral spaces in the country, like Seattle funeral directors before natural organic reduction were already, you know, on the green burial movement. So A.R. was just like a kind of continuation of that. I think that as it spreads, there are some people who feel very resistant to this and other changes in the industry.

Speaker 1: I think that, you know, A.R. is just one example among dozens of sort of a very, very long time coming disruption to the way that the funeral industry practices. And I mean, I attended the National Funeral Directors Association convention last October, and there were like people standing up and having like very loud, I don’t want to say yelling, but very loud conversations, very heated conversations about what’s happening to the industry and whether they want to be in it. I mean, there were, you know, older white men threatening to retire over everything from, you know, LGBTQ friendly business policies to things like, you know, more environmentally friendly funeral practices. But I think there’s a new generation of funeral directors coming in from all over the country, from every nook and cranny who really believe in this kind of stuff. And they’re going to continue to to make sure it’s available to their customers.

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Lizzie O’Leary: But. It’s not just the traditional funeral industry standing in the way of natural organic production becoming more mainstream. Americans just don’t like talking about death.

Speaker 1: I think that there is a real sort of just like primal aversion to to talking about really any method in detail. Like if we were to sit down and talk about embalming, I think a lot of people would be like, Oh, I would have defended that 5 seconds ago and now I never want to think about it again. This is awful. And I think that because it’s a new technology, it has to explain itself in a way that the old technologies haven’t been, you know, questioned for decades. And so so we’re in this like sort of difficult position where the ONR companies are like, you know, here’s how we work. And some people really respond to that while and other people are like, why are you telling me this? I never wanted to know. In terms of other sort of specific pushback. I think that, you know, there is a feeling that that this is it’s sort of like unholy. There’s also sort of like a religious dimension that I think is kind of added on to that, that physical aversion.

Lizzie O’Leary: That this is sort of taken away from the ritual ways in which we process and understand death and find comfort from religion.

Speaker 1: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the Catholic Church has said that, you know, our is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies. You know, that that’s sort of one of the dioceses stances on this. And I think that, you know, that makes sense. And people who feel that way will never have to do A.R.. I think that for the customers who are very excited about this idea, for them, it feels more like a return to sort of natural waste. And to some degree, you know, they have some real evidence behind them. But I have to say, like the traditional American funeral is like 160 years old. It’s not an ancient practice, Right? It’s it’s not sort of innate to the human experience that we do things this way.

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Lizzie O’Leary: I was about to ask you about Drew Gilpin Faust book, This Republic of Suffering, which was a sort of transformative read for me because I had not thought about the very intimate at home experience of death that that most Americans had prior to the Civil War. And that’s when things started to change. And I wonder if having gone through the past few years and lost more than a million people to COVID, if you think there might be some space for Americans to rethink how we feel about death, we think that distance that we have put between ourselves and something that will happen to all of us.

Speaker 1: I think that I know more can be seen as as one sort of attempt to reacquaint ourselves with this process. Right. For people who do like to hear about it, who do want to participate at who you know in it, who have put their families through this process. I think that it is something that that proximity is what’s appreciated. Those details are what they desire. They want to sort of lift the veil. Whether that’s true for everyone, I guess, sort of remains to be seen.

Speaker 1: I do think that it’s important to say, you know, but right now, I know our really is in some ways a sort of a sort of small and kind of culture bound, you know, sort of option. But I feel that when it comes to these questions of proximity that people are trying to find ways through, you know, the whole funeral movement, through green burial, whether that’s, you know, A.R. or just sort of, you know, in a designated forest, whether it’s going through the traditional process. But asking a funeral director if you can be the one to help prepare your family member. Right.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Did doing this story make you think about what you wanted to happen to your body when you die?

Speaker 1: Yeah, I think I’m always thinking about that. I think that for me I am attracted to noir in a way that just for personal reasons, I’m not as attracted to a process like acclimation. I am drawn to that sort of new frontiers, kind of elements of it. I like that idea of participating in something that feels burgeoning and exciting and new. But I think at the end of the day, for me it would really be about what my loved ones wanted and what worked for them. And I think that you see this in this bird story I wrote where I focused on the daughter of a person who died. Right, More than more than the mother who had actually passed away because it was the daughter who was like, this is important to me. This is what I want and this is the way that I’ll get to feel close to you. And her mother said, Yeah, go for it. Like I’ll I’ll be dead. And so I think that, you know, this process just really does center the living. And I hope that that’s what people would say about whatever might. Emily decides for me, you know, when I die.

Lizzie O’Leary: Eleanor Cummins. Thank you very much.

Speaker 1: Thank you.

Lizzie O’Leary: Eleanor Cummins is a freelance science journalist. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Tori Bosch. Joel Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family. And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you are a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. You can get all your slate podcasts ad free. Just head on over to Slate.com slash what next?

Lizzie O’Leary: Plus, to sign up. All right. We will be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.