What is human composting? Experts explain how the eco-friendly burial option works.

·8-min read
A young plant with its roots in a small fabric bag sits on the ground in a forest.
Human composting is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation. (Photo courtesy of Return Home)

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Composting isn’t just for leftovers and soiled napkins. You can now compost your body after you die in certain states, turning it into a rich soil. It’s called human composting or natural organic reduction, and it’s currently legal in four states: Washington (which was the first state to legalize it, in 2019), Colorado, Oregon and, most recently, Vermont. It’s expected to be legal soon in New York as well.

Given that an increasing number of people are interested in living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle, it’s not surprising that desire would carry through to the very end: in death. Micah Truman, founder and chief executive officer of the green funeral home Return Home, based in Washington, tells Yahoo Life that green burials are catching on “like wildfire.”

That growing interest is particularly apparent when you look at the number of followers the handful of U.S. funeral homes that offer body composting have on social media, with at least one — Return Home, which has more than 430,000 followers and more than 4.5 million likes — going viral on TikTok.

While human composting may seem “creepy” or make people squeamish, Truman says that’s really about our discomfort with death in general. “We don’t want to talk about it,” he says. But when it comes to dying, “it spares none of us,” he notes, adding that discussing your end-of-life wishes is a “really important” conversation to have.

A human composting vessel with flowers is seen from above.
A human composting vessel with flowers. (Photo courtesy of Return Home)

So, who is choosing to have their body composted after death?

“The short answer is everybody,” says Truman, who runs the largest human composting facility in the U.S., with enough space to transform 74 bodies into soil each month. “We’ve had 55 families come to us — some are as young as 23 and as old as 99.”

Naturally, “there’s a large number of people for whom the environment is incredibly important,” says Truman, increasing the appeal of this eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation (which requires a lot of fuel and emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year) and burial (which traditionally requires, just for starters, toxic formaldehyde-laden embalming fluids and caskets containing metal and varnishes). Not to mention the fact that urban cemeteries in the U.S. and abroad are quickly running out of space to bury people.

Seth Viddal, managing partner of the Natural Funeral in Colorado, tells Yahoo Life, “You do not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that [cremation] pollutes” or that it’s not environmentally friendly to be “embalmed with a toxic chemical” and then put into the ground.

Green burials can help change that. “For each person who chooses human composting over traditional burial and cremation, 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide is saved from the environment,” Anna Swenson, outreach manager for Recompose in Washington, tells Yahoo Life. That’s roughly equivalent to the carbon footprint of a 2,500-mile drive, one person taking a 3,000-mile round-trip flight or the production of food one American eats in half a year.

For others, choosing composting is simply about returning to the earth. “A hunter is going to want to go back as much as a Sierra Club member,” says Truman. “Some want to go gently back to the earth using a process that’s not fire and not putting them underground — and that’s nondenominational.”

How soon after a person dies do they need to be composted?

The places that offer human composting are also typically funeral homes, so families can hold the funeral there and then the composting process can start after. Or else “some wait until the soil is done and then have their ceremony,” says Swenson. Still others hold the funeral before the body is transferred to a human composting facility. (Swenson explains that Recompose has a transport team that “picks up the body from the place of death, whether hospital or home.”)

Composting can happen “within a few days of death, depending on what the family has planned in terms of a funeral, so it can happen pretty quickly,” says Swenson. “Or we also have cold storage where we can keep bodies until there’s availability in the process.”

How does the composting process actually work?

The process — called the “laying in” — starts with several inches of wood chips, alfalfa and straw being placed in the bottom of a vessel made of steel or wood with a protective liner. At the Natural Funeral, Viddal says the vessel is about 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep and 7 feet long — slightly larger than a traditional casket. Then the person’s body is placed in the vessel. “We can do that with the family — they’re actually participating with us if they choose,” he says. “About 75% of families so far want to be there for that.”

Loved ones can add special items to the vessel as long as they’re organic, and many do — from love letters and favorite flowers to little wood sculptures and even champagne. “They’ve brought roses from their garden, sprigs of a Colorado blue spruce tree that they lay on the chest of their person,” says Viddal. “They’ve brought cannabis or hops. Something that’s meaningful to them and their person.”

Truman shares that one woman who lost her spouse brought the top layer of their wedding cake. “You know how you freeze a wedding cake? She brought her cake and put it in the vessel,” he says.

Then the vessel is topped off “with a lot more wood chips and alfalfa,” says Viddal. “It’s a calculated ratio to the body weight of the person. Then we close the lid.”

Naturally occurring microbes in the body, along with oxygen and the organic layers, turn human remains into soil. Viddal explains that there is also “a computer inside of the vessel that is going to monitor the temperature and the oxygen and moisture levels inside the vessel for the duration of the process.” That’s because the temperature inside the vessel needs to reach or surpass 131 degrees for 72 hours — “the qualifying threshold that ensures any pathogens” are killed off, notes Swenson.

Over the course of a few weeks, the vessel is rotated several times “to ensure oxygen is reaching every part of the vessel” during the transformation into soil, Swenson says.

Two wooden bowls on a table hold human composted soil and the plant-based mix that’s put in the vessel as part of the composting process.
Human composted soil in a bowl, left, next to a bowl of the plant-based mix that’s put in the vessel as part of the composting process. (Photo courtesy of Return Home)

What happens to the bones?

While flesh starts to decompose quickly, “bones will survive for decades,” points out Viddal. However, some do get broken down into smaller fragments during the composting process. Any remaining bone fragments are removed and placed in a cremulator, which grinds bone into “something that looks like powder,” he explains, adding, “Anything that looks like ashes is actually pulverized bone.”

That powder is added back into the vessel and then the curing process begins, “where the soil dries and completes its transformation,” says Swenson.

How long does the whole process take?

It depends. At Recompose, the process takes about one to two months, sometimes longer, while at Return Home, it takes about two months. At the Natural Funeral, human composting takes about four months.

While this is happening, family members sometimes “visit” and decorate their loved one’s vessel with sentimental pictures and even LED lights. “We realized what people want is proximity to the vessels,” says Truman. “One man comes with two cups of coffee — one for his [deceased] wife and one for him.”

What happens to your remains after?

Once the composting process is complete, you’re left with “several hundred pounds” of soil, explains Swenson. “You can think of that in terms of two to three wheelbarrows” of soil, says Viddal.

He notes that the quality of the soil looks and feels like “a super-premium garden blend. It’s a beautiful, rich, dark chocolaty-looking soil. ... It’s teeming with life.”

In Swenson’s experience, “about half of families want to take home the soil,” using it on trees and plants or scattering it over “a garden a person might have tended in their life or their favorite meadow.” She notes that you need permission from the landowner before scattering any of the soil not on your own property. Many families choose to take home a smaller amount — for example, Swenson’s Recompose families are given a 64-ounce box of soil, “an equivalent of an urn.”

Any remaining soil is typically donated to forest conservation and restoration projects. Recompose, for example, has a partnership with the nonprofit conservation land trust Remember Land in Washington, to which families can donate any excess soil.

How much does it cost?

Return Home charges about $5,000 for human composting. Recompose charges $7,000, while the Natural Funeral charges $7,900, making them about comparable with traditional burial and more expensive than cremation, which is now the most popular death care option in the U.S. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2021 the median cost of a funeral (including a metal casket) was $7,848, and the median cost of a funeral with cremation was $6,970.

Viddal says that human composting can cost more in some cases because of the time and effort involved. “It’s a daily process,” he says. “There’s so much more hands-on to this.”

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