"To know that the last gesture you'll make will be gentle and beneficial just feels like the right thing to do," says Recompose founder Katrina Spade

By Eileen Finan
June 17, 2021 09:55 AM
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catrina spade
Katrina Spade
| Credit: The Seattle Times

At the age of 50, Nina Schoen expects to have a long life ahead of her, but the Seattle-based project manager has thought a lot about death — and why people are so reluctant to talk about it: "It's going to happen to all of us," she says, "but it should be a more positive experience than the fear we infuse into it."  

When she first heard about a new end-of life process that turns the body into compost, "I was really moved by the idea. It just felt right," says Schoen, who became one of the first to reserve a spot with a Seattle-based company called Recompose, the country's first funeral home to offer human composting.

"I love the idea of helping other life," says Schoen. "Is it a tree? A flower? Whatever — go thrive. I'll have had my turn. After my death, it's their turn."

Last year Recompose began transforming bodies to soil, after Washington became the first state to legalize the practice of human composting, more formally known as natural organic reduction. Before that, end-of-life options in the U.S. were limited to burial or cremation, both of which come with environmental costs — U.S. cremations alone dump 1.7 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

For more on human composting, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

katrina spade
Katrina Spade
| Credit: Ian Allen

This spring, Colorado and Oregon have followed suit with laws legalizing composting human remains, and bills look likely to pass later this year in New York and California. Pioneering the composting movement is Recompose founder Katrina Spade, who has spent a decade developing the process and who is leading the push to legalize it in hopes of offering people a greener option for death care.

"I wondered, 'What if we had a choice that helps the planet rather than harms it?'" Spade tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "To know that the last gesture you'll make will be gentle and beneficial just feels like the right thing to do."

Spade first considered the idea as a graduate student in architecture at University of Massachusetts. Growing up in rural Plainfield, New Hampshire, where her mother was a physician assistant and her father a doctor, "we were always pretty frank about death and dying," says Spade, 43. "We talked about it with a comfort level that was maybe a little atypical for U.S. families."

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After she had her own two sons, she began to wonder what she might do with her body after death. A friend who knew her interest in the topic reminded her that farmers sometimes compost the carcasses of cows, and that sparked an idea for her thesis: "If you can compost a cow, you can probably compost a human," she thought, and she set about designing a facility to do just that.

That project eventually became a non-profit venture, The Urban Death Project, in which Spade worked with engineers and forensic scientists to study the feasibility of the idea. By 2017, she'd formed Recompose.

Since the company opened operations on Dec. 20, 50 bodies have begun the composting process, 25 of which have been fully transformed into soil, at a cost of $5,500 per person. More than 775 people have already signed up for the company's pre-pay membership, Precompose.

After death, a body (which cannot be embalmed but can be refrigerated to allow viewing) is received at the Recompose facility and placed in an 8 feet by 4 feet steel cylinder along with alfalfa, wood chips and straw. After 30 days, natural microbes break down the remains — including teeth and bones — into soft compost "genuinely good for your garden," says Spade.

After another few weeks of aerating the soil, it's ready for pick up. Most loved ones choose to take home a small amount of compost — 64 ounces — and donate the rest to help reforest Bells Mountain, a nearby land trust that has a partnership with the company.

"You rejoin the natural cycle," says Spade. "And to me, that's incredibly beautiful."

Recompose, which is planning to open three additional locations next year (in Colorado, California and a second in Seattle), has attracted high-profile investors like The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood, but the composting movement has seen some push-back, notably from Catholic groups arguing that the process doesn't promote human dignity.

Composting "is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies," the New York Catholic Conference wrote in a statement. But Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, who co-sponsored that state's bill, says she's had overwhelmingly positive feedback.

"This is about giving people another choice," Titone says. "At first, people react with shock — 'You really can do that?' But so many people today are looking at their impact on the Earth. This is a popular thing because when you die, you can give back to the planet."

amigo bob
Robert Cantisano, a.k.a. Amigo Bob

That was exactly the goal for Robert Cantisano, an organic farmer and activist better known as Amigo Bob in his Northern California community. He was one of the first to have his remains composted at Recompose after he died of cancer Dec. 26 at the age of 69.

"He was a big champion of the Earth," says his widow, Jenifer Bliss. "He spent his life trying not to poison the Earth and he was an expert in making compost, so this was a perfect fit for him."

When Bliss drove to Seattle pick up the compost made from Amigo Bob's body, "I touched it and felt comforted by it," she says. "It was a profound moment."

She used some of the compost to plant a cherry tree on their farm, "the first fruit of the season which represents the abundance of the coming year," Bliss says.

Some she scattered in a field where she planted herbs and flowers. The remaining soil is in a pile next to their home, ready to feed their crops and be given to friends and fellow farmers.

"I know he'd be happy to know that even in death, he was doing something to promote the health of plants and all the creatures around," she says. "This is the cycle of life. We start from two cells coming together and boom, we're this miracle creation. And when our spirit separates from our bodies, nature's set up to disintegrate us into microparticles that will nourish life anew."