The eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial or cremation transforms the human body into nutrient rich soil

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recompose coffin
Credit: Recompose

Last December, the country's first funeral home offering natural organic reduction — the formal term for turning human bodies to compost — opened for business in Washington, the first state to legalize the process as an end-of-life choice. Since then, Colorado and Oregon have passed laws allowing it, and several other states have taken up bills to legalize the practice. Here's what you need to know about this new choice in death care.

What is human composting?

More formally known as natural organic reduction, it's a new, eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial or cremation, in which a human body is transformed into nutrient rich soil that is "genuinely good for your garden," Katrina Spade, founder of Seattle-based Recompose, the first funeral home in the U.S. to offer the service, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "It's a lot like a compost you might buy at a nursery. It's dark, rich soil."

Why would someone choose to be composted?

"You get to rejoin the natural cycle," Spade says of the process. "For me that's a beautiful concept. This compost can help a forest grow." For Linda Wolf, who was one of the first of the 775 people who have already signed up for the service, the choice made sense. "It's kind of like being a trailblazer — you go out with a bang," says Wolf, 76, a semi-retired psychoanalyst in Seattle. "I don't want to go out of this life being wasteful. This way I'm contributing to the earth."

How does it work?

At the Recompose facility, a body is placed inside a metal cylinder along with alfalfa, wood chips and straw. Over the course of 30 days, during which the mixture receives oxygen and is periodically turned, natural microbes in the body and organic material raise the temperature in the vessel to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and break down the remains, including teeth and bone, into a soft soil. "It's nature doing its work, and it feels almost like this hallelujah moment," Spade says. After another few weeks of drying the mixture, it is ready to distribute.

katrina spade
Katrina Spade
| Credit: Ian Allen

How much compost does one body make?

After the addition of plant material, the Recompose process creates one cubic yard per person. "That's about the amount of soil that would fill a pickup truck," Spade says. At Recompose, families may receive the full load or they may choose to take home a smaller amount (64 oz.) and donate the rest to a nearby land trust, which uses the soil for reforestation.

Could I still have a viewing or funeral?

Because of the toxicity of embalming fluids — and the fact that the chemicals used are designed to preserve the body, while composting acts to break it down — bodies to be composted cannot be embalmed. However, in every state, it is legal for a body to be preserved for viewing using refrigeration or dry ice. Recompose, which has fully transformed 25 bodies to soil since opening and has another 25 in the process, also offers families a memorial service (virtual for now) that can take place at the facility before a body is put into a composting vessel. "We consider every body that comes to us to be sacred and we welcome out loud those bodies when they come in the doors," Spade says.

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

Where could I get composted?

The process is now legal in Washington, Colorado and Oregon. Bills are pending and likely to be passed this year in California and New York. If you don't live in one of those states, it is possible to ship a body across state lines to undergo the process. Recompose, which charges $5,500 for services, is planning to open new facilities in California and Colorado in the next year, as well as an additional location in the Seattle area. A growing number of composting competitors have already opened up as well, including the first large-scale composting facility, Return Home, located outside Seattle, which will be able to process 72 bodies at the same time and charges $4,950 for basic composting services. (Currently, Recompose facility only has capacity for 10 bodies.)

How is composting a greener choice than traditional death care?

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the majority of  Americans (56 percent) say they plan to be cremated, and most of the rest choose traditional burial, which includes embalming the body and placing it in a casket inside a vault — though both of those methods take an environmental toll. Each year, cremations in the United States emit more than 1.7 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, and the energy required for each cremation is about equal to 20 gallons of gas, according to statistics from the Green Burial Council. Traditional interments, meanwhile, pour more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid and 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground.

What are some other eco-friendly death choices?

Many of the laws and bills legalizing human composting have also legalized a process known as alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, in which a body is placed in a pressurized container along with potassium hydroxide and heated for several hours until it breaks down to liquid and bone ash. The process does not produce harmful emissions like regular cremation and takes only about 1/8 the energy. Another choice growing in popularity is green burial, in which an unembalmed body is wrapped in a simple shroud or put into a biodegradable casket and placed directly into the ground without a burial vault. Not every cemetery allows green burial, but the Green Burial Council website can help find locations that do.