The Future of Green Burial with Katrina Spade

Katrina Spade is popularizing the idea of ‘Recomposition’, a green burial method that converts human remains into soil. It’s among the most promising eco-friendly options that may be available in the near future. She discusses this unorthodox alternative to cremation and how it’s rise could change our approach to saying goodbye.
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More information about ‘Recompose’ can be found in their website.

‘Recompose’ and the Future of Green Burial with Katrina Spade – Podcast Transcription

While earning her Master of Architecture degree, Katrina invented a system to transform dead bodies into soil.  In 2017, she branded this system, “Recompose,” which you can check out at www.recompose.life.

Recompose, based in Washington State, offers a green alternative to cremation and conventional burial methods.  This natural process of recomposition, gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die.  Katrina has been featured on NPR, in the Guardian, Wired, Fast Company and the New York Times.  I saw Katrina speak at the 2017 Death Salon and was impressed by the process she’s created.  She has partnered with the University of Washington to revolutionize how we die, and the effect it has on the earth.

Kelly MacLean:  Thank you so much Katrina, for talking to us today about your fascinating project.

Katrina Spade:  Thanks for inviting me.

KM:  I saw you speak at the Death Salon last year, and I was very excited.  I have a green burial crush on you and your whole mission, everything you’re doing. So, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about it today.

KS:  Sure.  I’d be happy to do that.  You mentioned green burial, and I often think about Recompose, and what we’re doing, as the urban equivalent to a natural burial, or a green burial.  I’m sure most of your readers know, a green burial is when a body is just wrapped in a shroud, or a pine box, and put directly in the earth.  Generally, the way we’ve done it for a long, long time.  But when I was in grad school, several years ago, I was thinking about my own mortality, and looking at the funeral industry.  It occurred to me that natural burial, that is, green burial, probably wasn’t a solution for everyone who lives in cities, because it still takes up a fair amount of land.  So, I started working on a project that accelerates a little bit what happens in the ground, but, in general, it’s the same idea of using nature to just do what it does anyway.

KM:  Can you tell us a little bit what the actual process is?  Anytime I tell people about recomposing, they get fascinated, and what they usually ask is, “How long does it take?”  And, “How on earth do they transform a human body into soil?”

Green burial into a tree

KS:  Yes, essentially what we’re doing is taking a process that happens on the forest floor, which is where dead organic material, with the right ratio of carbon, nitrogen, a nice amount of oxygen and also some moisture, decomposes and turns into top soil.  So, if you imagine what’s happening on the forest floor, with all kinds of leaves, and probably some chipmunks in there, that’s what we’re sort of mimicking.

To do that we have designed a vessel system, which is basically a big container. Inside that container we lay a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, which is a really great mixture that contains a lot of carbon and nitrogen, ready to break down.  It also happens, as a side note, to smell good, and creates a nice bed to lay your deceased loved one upon.

We lay a body on top of those materials, and put more of the same on top, and then, over a 30-day span, we provide oxygen.  We bury the body using a basic, pretty simple fan system, and some moisture and a little sprinkle of water here and there.  The microbes and bacteria that are around us all the time, that are already on those wood chips and that are in the air, break down the body.  It’s really quite amazing.  All we do is create the environment so that nature can do its job.  And it astounds me every time I see it happen.

KM:  Yes, that’s incredible.  When I have told people about this, they usually ask, “How on earth do they do that?”  I think they’re imagining some chemical in some sort of really weird machine that would create this bizarre process.  But what you’re saying is, actually, no, we’re just creating the conditions for nature to do its thing, and I’m guessing faster than it would happen in nature.

KS:  Yes, even faster.  This process has been used for decades with livestock on farms as a way to recycle animals back to the land.  I didn’t invent the concept of turning a dead animal into soil.  But we’re redesigning the process to make it appropriate for humans.  Especially from a ritual and emotional standpoint.

green burial forest

But what’s cool about this process is because we hyper-manage the environment, the community of microbes, called thermophilic microbes, work at temperatures between 120- and 150-degrees Fahrenheit.  They create those temperatures by their activity.  So, the process is based on the principles of livestock mortality composting.  But composting is using carbon and nitrogen to break everything down into its molecular pieces.  This mortality composting works at a much higher temperature threshold than, say, your backyard food waste composting.  That’s part of the reason for the accelerated time frame.

KM:  That makes sense.  And what is the time frame in nature for a human body, versus in the facility that you’re envisioning?

KS:  Well, I can tell you two things.  First, in a natural burial how long it takes for a human body to decompose completely, depends on a lot of things.  Mostly, it depends on the soil makeup of the place where the person is buried.  So, if you’re buried in New Mexico in the desert, you’re probably never going to decompose.  It’s probably more of a mummification that happens, because there’s no moisture, or hardly any moisture, in the ground, and probably very little oxygen, too, because you’ve got this packed dirt situation.  But if you’re buried in the mountains in North Carolina, where the soil is very moist, and there could be plant life, oxygen and moisture, you would see a quicker decomposition.  With natural burial you could see decomposition of the flesh from a year on.  Again, it depends on whether there’s enough moisture and oxygen in the soil.

So, the beauty of natural burial is you just let nature take its time.  We were looking at that model, which is truly the most beautiful model, and saying, “Okay. If we’re going to provide a service like this in our cities, we probably can’t let nature take as long as it might, say, in northern North Carolina.”

KM:  Right.  Not the best business model.

KS:  Exactly.  We don’t have years to wait.  So, it really does matter that we can have everything happen within about a month’s time.

KM:  Can you walk me through just what you envision for this recomposing facility?  What you would envision the experience to be like for the family?  I can tell you we have cremated loved ones that I have lost.  And the experience after our service, was very, well… we went into a warehouse, and it’s not really where you want to say goodbye to your brother.  It’s very industrial.  They go into this oven, and then there’s a button that’s pushed.  Then you get back a cardboard box full of ashes.  So, that was our experience.  And I’m curious, what do you envision the experience to be for a family coming to your facility?

green burial soil

KS:  I think the ability to transform your loved one into soil is the heart of all of this, but it’s not everything.  What we’re really excited about is creating places in our cities where you would want to be.  We’re thinking a lot about the light in the places that we’ll design and having gardens on site.  And part of what we’re offering, part of our service includes time with the body, if the family chooses, on site.

We want to offer families the opportunity to participate in, for example, the washing and shrouding of the body before it’s laid into our Recompose system.  We want to offer families the chance to take part in all of the work of caring for their loved one, if they choose.  Because we see the work as something that humans have always done until recently.  There’s no reason we can’t do the work of caring for our loved ones.  There is something really powerful and beautiful in doing the work itself.

KM:  Yes.

KS:  So, our staff will be there as support, always able to do all of it, if need be but always encouraging families and letting the families lead.  So, part of what we offer is having shrouding rooms on site where families can have some private time.  Then having what one might consider a ritual, that when we lay the body into this vessel, that’s the moment.  And we hope it can be something that feels like a marking of this person’s life.

Then, after a month’s time, the family could come back and receive some of that soil that’s already been created and taking that to grow a tree or whatever the family decision might be.  And it could be another part of the ritual.

KM:  That’s such a different experience than we usually have.  It sounds beautiful, and it also sounds like there’s a sacredness and ritual to it, which I think for some people might be an obstacle to this idea.  It might be quite emotional just because soil is something that we don’t always think of as sacred, sadly, right?

KS:  That’s right.

KM:  It’s that dirt feels lowly.

KS:  Yes, that’s true. And I think that sometimes when I’m feeling philosophical, I like to play with that tension a little.  I mean, what’s cool about the Recompose process is that we cease to be human during this time, during this 30-day period.  Our bodies will be broken down on a molecular level.  No DNA or RNA remains, and I find that particularly beautiful.  That we would return to another state, all together.  So, the soil that’s created is on the one hand symbolically precious, and on the other hand, it’s just dirt.  So, that’s an interesting thing for people to play with a little bit.  But because it’s so important, and because we want to use that soil to really heighten the mission, so to speak, we’ll have relationships with environmental organizations. For example, we know that about a cubic yard of soil is created per person, and that’s because there’s so much other material that goes into the process, wood chips, and straw and alfalfa. A cubic yard is 3x3x3 feet. So, it’s a lot for some families.

KM:  Yes, I’m pretty short, so, I might be 2×2.

KS:  Exactly!  Many families might just want a bowl, or a smaller box of the soil.  So, Recompose will take care of the remainder, and that will go and nourish land in the Puget Sound region and in conservation lands.  Then you can go and visit it like a natural burial ground but without the human being actually buried there. But you can visit a place that is then meaningful to you.  So, on the one hand this is dirt, and that’s what happens when soil is created, but there’s this deep meaning in it.

KM:  Yes. I like what you said about the sacredness of it, but also that it’s okay to know that, “Oh, it’s just dirt.”  Because grief and letting go is hard for the families.  So, there’s something about the reality that that person’s physical body is no longer on the earth.  They have moved on; they are in a completely new form.  I think that could, allow the grieving families to let go and embrace the impermanence of the situation.

KS:  Yes, that’s it. And one of the things we’re always thinking about is how can we remove any feelings of guilt or shame or judgment from this entire process? So, that means encouraging families to participate, but not requiring it.  Ever.  And not pushing it.  If you don’t want that dirt, if you don’t want that soil, that’s totally okay.  I think there are a lot of people who have ashes of a family member and don’t know what to do with them but know they should do something. There’s that should, should, should feeling.  We’re on the one hand encouraging ritual, and we’re going to give you something that’s a really meaningful experience, but, at the same time, we’re trying to remove the judgment from it all because that doesn’t do anyone any good.

KM:  I think that’s right.  I think there are so many shoulds.  I think most people go along with the way that we do death and burial in our society because they think they should, even though maybe they were creeped out by the few funerals that they went to.  They might still opt to go in that direction when their parent dies, because they just feel that they should go along with it.  One thing I have found in my own grieving process, and watching other people around me, is there’s really no wrong way to do it, and there really are no shoulds.

KS:  I agree.  There’s no wrong way to do any of this.  Yet, it feels like there must be.  And we wonder what the right way is.

KM:  That’s why it’s good for these conversations to happen, so people can have a little bit of permission that we’re not generally given in this society.  So, tell me what’s happening now with your project?  Where are things standing today?

KS:  Well, we recently finished a pilot project at Washington State University.  Like I said, farmers have been recycling animals back to the land in a very similar way for decades, and it’s been proven, again and again, to be a very safe and effective process. It’s never been done before with humans, so we had to prove that in fact, it does work.

The same process definitely works for human beings.  And we did that research in part to bring recomposition to the Washington State Legislature as part of our campaign to legalize it for use here in Washington.  As you probably know, funeral laws are by state, so there’s no federal law that would allow recomposition nationally.  But we’re working to legalize the process here first and hope to then bring it to other states where people might want it.

And so, our bill will be part of the 2019 legislative session which starts in January.  So far, we have legislators understanding that this is about two things when you boil it down:  It’s about environmental options for death care, and it’s about consumer choice. There’s not really a whole lot of reason to be against another option when it comes to the care of our bodies after death.  And we’ve had great responses from our legislators. If we can legalize in the next six months, then we’ll be raising money to open the first facility, and we’ll do so here in Seattle.

KM:  That’s terrific. And what are some of the legal challenges that you might face, say, in a state that might not get it so much as your own state?

KS:  I think not so many legal challenges as one might think.  When it comes down to it, legislators are people, and they’re doing what they think their constituents want.  So, there’s not any legal reason why we would have trouble adding recomposition to the list of allowable methods of disposition.  Right now, in Washington State you can cremate, you can bury, or you can donate your body to science. And we’re going to add recomposition to that list. And actually, we’re submitting a dual bill.  We’re hoping to legalize alkaline hydrolysis as well.  Really broadening the options.

KM:  That’s also known as aquamation?

KS:  Yes.

KM:  So, for those who don’t know about aquamation, we’ve done a podcast with the ladies at Resting Waters from Seattle.  So, we have information on that if anyone’s interested.  It’s essentially a form of water cremation, that is much greener than the usual cremation.

KS:  So, if we can do both of those, we’ll be the most progressive state in the country when it comes to death care.  Those are the big things on the horizon.

KM:  And can you say what kind of impact it would have environmentally?  I don’t know what the metrics would be, but if half the people opted for recomposition, rather than burial or cremation, what would be the environmental impact?

KS:  Actually, a team of students from the Netherlands and a PhD in Life Cycle Assessments did this calculation.  They found that for each person that chooses recomposition instead of cremation or burial, we would save about a metric ton of carbon. That’s a big number.

KM:  That’s huge!

KS:  Yes, it is.  And part of that is actually looking at both the manufacture and transportation of caskets, grave liners, etc.  It looks at the maintenance of cemeteries.  It looks at the energy needed, of course, to cremate.  And on the flip side, we’re looking at the sequestration of carbon that happens with our process. We actually sequester carbon, rather than emitting it.  So, on both sides of the equation it gives us a pretty good saving.

And then in terms of energy use, recomposition uses about an eighth the energy of cremation.  And finally, we’re creating soil, which is a precious resource, and hopefully developing people who steward the earth in a deep way.  While carbon saving is great, we’re probably not going to solve climate change by doing this.  But we can make a dent, and we are creating a really earth-aligned model.

KM:  It alone may not solve climate change, but we also won’t solve climate change without addressing what we do with human bodies and looking at death in a different way than we do now.  That is, looking at the end of the spectrum as well as what we do in life.  It’s good to end on a green note, you know?  I know a lot of people drive Priuses, eat organic, wear things out of recycled yoga mats and so on.  And that’s all great, but it really does matter how you end any story, and it’s important to have that value.  I told my mom about this interview, and we were talking about it, and she said, “I want to have that done with my body.”  Then she said, “It’ll be my atonement.  I’m sorry for all of the things I did wrong in my life to the earth.”  And I thought that was very sweet and a little sad.

KS:  Yes, it is.

KM:  Well, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers, Katrina? Anything that anybody can do to help, or get involved, in your movement?

KS:  There are two things.  The first is, please, if you’re interested in just following along with this adventure, go to www.recompose.life, and sign up for our newsletter.  I send it out about once a month or once every other month, but I will keep you posted as we keep going with this.

And second, talk to your family and friends.  That’s huge.  Even if you don’t want Recompose, talk to your family and friends and tell them what you do want.  Opening up the conversation is such a big part of this.

KM:  Absolutely.  And before I let you go, I want to ask, now that you’ve done your pilot program, what has been the response from families who have received the soil back?

KS:  Well, unfortunately, because it was part of our research program, because of the research protocol, we couldn’t give the soil back to families.  So, that was a pretty big disappointment.

KM:  But just for them knowing this is what happened?

KS:  In terms of the experience, it was wonderful.  All the people who donated their bodies for this research were contributing in a huge way to this whole movement, and so, it was, I think, a really special thing for everyone involved.

KM:  Well, it really does feel good when you do something nice for someone or something healthy for the environment.  I imagine having that feeling wrapped up in the final goodbye to your loved one would add a really positive tone to the whole thing.

KS:  Yes, it does.

KM:  Which we don’t always get, right?

KS:  Yes, I agree.

KM:  That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And lastly, I always ask, if you have one wish for your own death, for your own end, what would that be?  And it doesn’t have to be a big one, but what’s one wish that you have for your own death?

KS:  What’s one wish?

KM:  Yes.

KS:  I always tell my girlfriend and my kids that I’d like them to just do some ritual every year on my death anniversary.  That’s my hope.  That they’ll do something.

KM:  That’s sweet.  Do you have any ideas what kind of ritual might honor you?

KS:  No, but the other day I was thinking about it, and it can’t just be to go out to dinner.  That’s not quite what I was thinking.  Although, I guess that’s pretty good.  If they get together, and go out to dinner every year, forever.

KM:  So long as they eat something you really loved.

KM:  There you go.

KM:  Well, thank you so much, Katrina.  I really appreciate it.  I know you’re very busy, and I know our readers will really enjoy learning about this revolution you’re starting, so thank you for everything you do.

KM:  Thank you.  It was nice chatting today.

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