If you’ve ever composted your kitchen scraps or garden clippings, you are probably familiar with the basic process. It requires greens (aka your nitrogen-rich leftover broccoli stems or apple peels) and grounds (the carbon-rich stuff like dry leaves or wood chips). When they’re combined, microbes get to work and things start to break down. When it comes to natural organic reduction—aka human composting—the process is surprisingly similar. A body is washed and dressed in a biodegradable gown, then placed in the composting vessel.
The process of human composting is new and somewhat controversial. The traditional funeral industry and state governments have been slow to embrace it, and many people remain skeptical about the concept of composting human remains. But Eleanor Cummins, who wrote an article in the Verge about Return Home, a leader in the human composting industry, says natural organic reduction could be a greener alternative to traditional burial methods—one that centers the grief of the living while allowing the dead a level of control over the process that has been missing.
On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, freelance science journalist Eleanor Cummins took me inside the world of human composting, a movement that’s pushing for a greener way of returning us all to the earth. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: What goes into the composting vessels, other than, of course, the body?
Eleanor Cummins: Really anything biodegradable can be placed alongside it. The first time I ever met the CEO, Micah, he was like, “You can put anything in—love notes or ham sandwiches.” The body and all of those other materials are placed on a bed of alfalfa, sawdust, and straw. That’s going to be the browns of the compost, if you will, and the body is the greens. The vessel is closed and all of the microbes in your stomach are actually going to do the work of decomposition. When those microbes are no longer eating our food, digesting that for us, they start to digest us. 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.
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. What happens next?
That last stage is letting the soil rest. There’s an additional month where the temperature in the vessel comes down, the materials start to solidify into what we would recognize as soil, and 60 days later, what you’ll have is a totally safe, pathogen-free soil that can be used to grow a tree or nourish a garden. It really can be used in any way that other soil could be.
There was one woman in your story who referred to the soil product at the end as “mom post.”
Yes, yes. I spoke with a family who has done this process recently at Return Home, the Gerberdings, 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. Her brother called the vessel their mother’s terrarium.
You spent some time at the return home facility. What’s it like inside? Were people spending time with their loved ones’ vessels?
It’s not much to look at from the outside. It just sort of looks like a hanger-style facility like any other, and it’s surrounded by 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 facility. The first time I went, there were these Costco bookcases that stretched all the way up to the ceiling, but instead of bulk toilet paper, it was these vessels for composting human bodies. That’s sort of the front of house where that first 30 days unfolds and the body is being actively digested. Then if you go farther into the facility, there’s an additional set of rooms, and back there is where that second monthlong process of processing the bones and then letting that soil rest takes place.
Traditionally, the burial process in the U.S. involves embalming and preserving the body, and I would imagine in this case that there is none of that because it has to decompose. What’s the environmental impact of this process?
The traditional American Christian funeral has a lot of upfront environmental costs, according to its critics. All of that has turned on its head in human composting, and the goal is actually how quickly can we accelerate this process of returning to soil, so to speak. I think that environmentally, that’s a huge pull, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m from.
Some of the ways that they have created a greener process are, obviously, they’re removing a lot of these permanent elements from burial like the casket. They are reusing the vessels. One person passes through in about 30 days. The next person can then come in. The facilities tend to be run on green energy that’s purchased from the grid, and then all of the outputs from the process are also scrubbed on the back end, so any emissions coming out of the facility are going to be fairly neutral because they’ve been able to ground carbon emissions. Also, just the smelly, volatile organic compounds that make the smell of decomposition. All of those things are being strained before it’s released. They’ve really tried to reduce the impact at every stage.
Tell me about the people you met who were doing this or who were mourning their loved ones. Were they religious? Were they from the same socioeconomic group? Were they different?
From what I understand in having orbited Return Home for the better part of a year, they have a fairly diverse clientele. They’ve had a younger clientele than they expected, and that was also part of what made this experience so emotional for the people running the company. A lot of people in their 30s and 40s have opted in. I think that what people do have in common is a sense that this is going to give them the control over the process that they’re looking for. The body isn’t whisked away in a sort of pre-made package that takes very little of the family’s personal details into consideration. It’s like, how do we do this from scratch? I think people want to be a part of that because it makes them feel like they’re actually a part of something.
The people you talk to who either were thinking about this for themselves or who were there thinking about their loved ones, why did they choose to do this?
They chose it because it felt like it resonated with them spiritually. In talking to people, it’s something that they had a feeling might align with their values, and those values can be multitudinous, like environmental values, but also just taking time, doing something a little new. I think, too, there’s a lot of this that it’s seen in opposition often, to the traditional American Christian burial, but I think it also is in many ways kind of a return of other indigenous practices, of values from Judaism and Islam, which are focused on getting the body into the ground as soon as possible in the least mediated form.
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.
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 resources to convince people that this is something worth doing.
How much does it cost?
The process costs between 5,500 and $7,000 right now, depending on which company you go with.
Natural organic reduction is still a very new industry. In your reporting process, you got a remarkably candid look at how 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.
He’d spent the 18 months prior working on really technical problems, like How do you get this done and do it efficiently? He was working with bespoke manufacturers. They were developing machines that had never existed before. Then that first month, he had taken on his first few customers and was just 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 in preparing their loved one’s body, celebrating their life, and then keeping tabs on this composting process.
As he moved forward from there, I think that the questions became less about the engineering and more about the user experience, really—what is it like to have a loved one going through this process and how can we make it better for people?.
You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the funeral business. How big is it? How powerful is it?
It’s an incredibly powerful force, and all the more so because people don’t want to think about or talk about it. People are like, “I don’t want to know anything about that, so I’m going to assume that everything is working smoothly,” and a lot of cases that could not be farther from the truth. This state-by-state regulation has created a system where there’s immense regulatory capture. Instead of regulating in favor of consumers, the industry has been able to regulate in its own favor. This is where you get these astronomical prices for the 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.
How is the industry responding as a whole, or is it, to natural organic reduction and its emergence?
As it spreads, there are some people who feel very resistant to this and other changes in the industry. I think that NOR is just one example among dozens of a very, very long time coming disruption to the way that the funeral industry practices. 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 make sure it’s available to their customers.
Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, This Republic of Suffering, was a transformative read for me because I had not thought about the very intimate at home experience of death that most Americans had prior to the Civil War. 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, rethink that distance that we have put between ourselves and something that will happen to all of us?
I think that NOR can be seen as one attempt to reacquaint ourselves with this process for people who do like to hear about it, who do want to participate in it, who have put their families through this process. That proximity is what’s appreciated. Those details are what they desire. They want to lift the veil. Whether that’s true for everyone, I guess remains to be seen.