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Is Dying Bad for the Environment? Here’s How Human Composting Can Make a Difference

Have you heard of human composting, aka terramation? Let's dig into the environmental impact of the deathcare industry and how it can help.

Written by
Angelica Pizza
Published
February 2, 2022

Composting is the natural process of decomposition. It turns organic materials into a natural, nutrient-rich matter than can be returned to the earth. You may have heard of composting food scraps such as vegetables, eggshells, and coffee grounds to keep waste out of the landfill. And maybe you even have your own kitchen compost bin. But have you heard of human composting?

Many of us don't usually think about what happens after we die. But in this week's episode of Good Together, Laura Wittig speaks with Katey Houston, Service Manager at Return Home, and Brie Smith, Services Director at Return Home, to understand the environmental impact of dying—and how we can mitigate the impact.

Return Home is the world's first large-scale green funeral home that specializes in human composting. And Houston and Smith, both licensed funeral directors and embalmers, say human composting could make the "deathcare" industry more environmentally friendly than traditional methods, including cremation.

"We know that cremation uses about 30 gallons of fuel, which is enough to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back," Houston says. "And it puts everything that was good in your body up into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases."

The traditional burial method is also harmful to the environment because it uses a lot of natural resources and chemicals. Specifically, the embalming process—or the process of preserving human remains using chemicals—can release toxins into the soil. Embalming prevents natural decomposition, and while Smith says some embalming may be necessary, there's still a time and a place for it.

"We know about traditional burial that each year, about 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are all put into the earth as we separate people between layers and layers of these materials," Smith adds. "And they never really decompose and give any organic matter back to the earth."

However, human composting may be the solution to decreasing our carbon footprints after death.

What Is Human Composting?

Human composting, also known as terramation, is the process of turning human remains into compost, or nutrient-rich matter that can be returned to the earth.

"It's legally termed 'natural organic production,'" Houston says. "And it's simply allowing your body to do what it was made to do. That is laying on a bed of organics—which is straw, alfalfa, and sawdust—with some organics on top of the body, and then allowing the microbes that digest your food to turn you back to earth in a total of 60 days."

The Phases of Human Composting

Phase 1: Laying In

To begin the process, the body is given ideal conditions for breaking down. The body is laid in a vessel with organic materials including alfalfa, straw, and sawdust.

"So with the organic material that we mix together, alfalfa has a lot of nitrogen, and the microbes really feed off of that nitrogen," Smith says.

Families and loved ones are invited to add letters, flowers, and other organic materials to the vessel during this step.

Phase 2: Terramation

During the second phase, oxygen flows through the vessel, stimulating and activating microbes in the body. These microbes quickly transform the body into organic matter, and the vessel doesn't need to be manipulated. However, about three weeks in, the vessel is rotated to distribute moisture.

"It's oxygen, and oxygen moving through that vessel that kind of facilitates the process," Smith says. "And people rise in temperature, about 160˚F, where they stay. We're finding from anywhere from 14 to 21 days, their body is breaking down and transforming."

Phase 3: Curing

After about four weeks, the body is transformed into soil. This is now the screening stage, in which the body is screened for any inorganic materials.

"Once we reach the screening stage, that is an opportunity for us to remove the inorganics that people may have in their body—hip implants, screws, stents, that kind of thing," Houston says. "And those are recycled."

The soil then sits for another 30 days.

Phase 4: Life Grows On

In the final stage, the soil is then delivered to the family. The amount of soil varies depending on the person's weight.

"If the person weighs 200 pounds, we're putting in 600 pounds of organics in that vessel with them for a total of 800 pounds," Smith says. "When the person transforms, their body weight disappears and water weight as well. So what we're left with is around 500 pounds, or around a cubic yard of compost, that's returned to the family."

The soil can be used to plant a memorial garden or trees, or it can be donated. Families can also choose to keep the total amount of soil, or the soil can be scattered over a safe location to give back to the environment.

The Future of Human Composting

While we may not like to think about what happens after death, human composting might be an option to consider. Currently, human composting is legal in only three states: Washington, Colorado, and Oregon. However, according to Houston, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and Maine are also considering it. Houston also has plans to make human composting global.

"Basically, we need you to write to your legislators, and we have a sample letter that we can get to if you send us an email. It will also be up on our website soon," Houston says. "But legislators need to know that people want this option. Otherwise, it doesn't get anywhere."

If you're interested in human composting as a way to give back to the environment, you may also be worried about the cost. Fortunately, the human composting process isn't as expensive as it may seem.

"Our cost ends up being roughly about the same as a cremation with a memorial service in our area, and significantly less than a traditional burial," Smith says. "So we're kind of finding ourselves right in the middle."

To learn more about human composting and how it can benefit the planet, listen to this week's episode of Good Together.