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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Green Burial with Katrina Spade

More information about ‘Recompose’ can be found in their website.

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

Kelly MacLean: It’s the When You Die podcast. I’m Kelly MacLean. My guest today is Katrina Spade. While earning her Master’s of Architecture, Katrina invented a system to transform dead bodies into soil. In 2017, she branded this system, ‘recompose,’ which you can check out at recompose.life.

Recompose offers a green alternative to cremation and conventional burial methods with this natural process of recomposition, which gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die. She’s been featured in the Guardian, NPR, Wired, Fast Company, and the New York Times. I saw Katrina speak at the 2017 Death Salon, and was blown away 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. 

Thank you so much Katrina, for joining us on the When You Die podcast.

Katrina Spade: Thanks for having me.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I saw you speak at the Death Salon last year, and I got very excited … 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.

Katrina Spade: Sure. I’d be happy to do that. So … Yeah. 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, which, of course-

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm.

Katrina Spade: I’m sure most of your podcast listeners know, is where a body is just wrapped in a shroud, or a pine box, and put directly in the earth. Sort of 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, green burial, probably wasn’t a solution for everyone who lives in cities.

Kelly MacLean: Right.

Katrina Spade: Because it still takes up a fair amount of land. So, I started working on a project, but, again, I think it was kind of the equivalent … 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.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit what the actual process is? Anytime I tell people about recomposing, they get really 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

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

And we do that by … We have designed a vessel system, which is basically like a big container, and inside that container we lay a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, which is actually a really great mixture that has a lot of carbon, and nitrogen, ready to break down, and also happens, as a side note, happens to smell really great, and create a really nice bed to lay your deceased loved one upon. 

So, 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. So, we bury using a basic, pretty simple, fan system, and some moisture, a little bit of … A little sprinkle of water here and there, and the microbial activity … The microbes and bacteria that are around us all of the time, that are on those wood chips already, that are in the air, break down the body. It’s really quite amazing. It’s totally something …  Really all we do is create the environment so that nature can do its job. And it kind of astounds me every time I see it happen.

Kelly MacLean: It’s pretty incredible. I mean, when I have told people about this, and they ask like, “How on earth do they do that?” I think that what they’re imagining … Some sort of chemical, in some-

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: Sort of really weird machine that would do this bizarre process. But what you’re saying is actually no, we’re just creating the conditions for nature to do its thing, probably, I’m guessing, faster than it would happen in nature.

[00:05:00]

Katrina Spade: Yeah, and even faster than … So, 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 like, the concept of taking a dead animal, and turning it into soil. But we’re redesigning it to make it appropriate for humans. Especially from a ritual, and sort of emotional standpoint. 

green burial forest

But what’s cool about this process is because we sort of hyper manage the environment for these microbes, the community of microbes are actually working at … They’re thermophilic microbes working at temperatures between 120 and a 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That is, they create those temperatures by their activity. And if you imagine … So, the process is based on the principles of livestock mortality composting. But composting is a way to think about taking carbon and nitrogen, and breaking everything down into it’s molecular pieces, and … The cool thing is that this mortality composting works at a much higher temperature threshold than say, like, your backyard food waste composting, and so, that sort of gives … That’s part of the reason for the accelerated time frame.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. That makes sense. And what does the time frame end up looking like in nature for a human body? Versus in, you know, the facility that you’re envisioning?

Katrina Spade: Sure. So, in … Well, I can tell you two things. One, like, in a natural burial, how long it takes for a body to decompose completely depends on a lot of things. Mostly, it depends on like, what is the soil make up of the place the person is buried? So, if you’re buried in New Mexico in the desert, actually, 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 so … And probably very little oxygen, too, because you’ve got this packed kind of dirt situation-

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm.

Katrina Spade: But if you’re buried in the mountains in North Carolina, where the soil is [inaudible 00:07:28], and there could be plant life, and oxygen, and moisture there, you would see a quicker decomposition. And I think, from what I understand, you know, a natural burial can … Anywhere from a year, plus, you can have certainly decomposition of the flesh,  and then it depends really, kind of, again, on whether there’s enough moisture in the soil, and oxygen. 

So, I think it’s really dependent. And the beauty is, you just … With natural burial, you just let nature take its time. And so, we were, again, we were looking at that model, which is truly the most beautiful model, I think, and saying, “Okay. Well, 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-“

Kelly MacLean: Right.

Katrina Spade: We don’t have-

Kelly MacLean: Not the best business model.

Katrina Spade: Years to wait. Exactly! And so, it really does matter that we can have everything happen within about a month time frame.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. And can you walk me through, you know, just what you envision for this recomposing facility? What you would envision the experience to be like for the family? I can tell you with loved ones that I have lost, we have cremated them-

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: And the experience after our, you know, our service, was very … You know, we went into a warehouse, and, you know, it’s not really where you want to say goodbye to your brother, you know?

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: It’s very industrial, and then they go into this oven, and then there’s a button that’s pushed, and then you get back, you know, 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

Katrina Spade: Yeah. So, I think that the ability to transform your loved one into soil is almost just … I guess you might consider that the heart of all of this, but it’s not everything, because what we’re really excited about is creating places in our cities where … There’s even … You could think of them … I mean, they’ll all look very different, but places that you would want to be … Something we’re … We think a lot about the light in the place that we’ll design, and having gardens on sight, and so, part of what we’re offering … Part of, sort of, our service includes time with the body, if the family chooses, on site.

[00:10:00]

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

Kelly MacLean: Right.

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

And then, on the other end of the month’s time, coming back, and then receiving some of that soil that’s been creating, and then going to grow a tree, or whatever the decision is on that … Can be more of a family driven, or that will be a family decision, but it could be another part of the ritual.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. That’s such a different experience than we usually have. It sounds really beautiful, and it does sound a bit like kind of … There’s a sacredness and ritual to it, which I think for some people  the obstacle to this, to getting into this idea, might be the … It might be emotional. Just because soil is something that we don’t always think of as sacred, sadly, right?

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: Very sadly.

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: It’s something that we’re … Dirt feels kind of lowly, or something.

Katrina Spade: Yeah. That’s true. And I think in a way like, sometimes when I’m feeling like, philosophical, I like to kind of play with that tension a little, because-

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm.

Katrina Spade: I mean, what’s cool about the recompose process is we actually cease to be human during this time, during that 30 days. Like, our bodies will be broken down on a molecular level, and, you know, no DNA, or RNA remains, and so, 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, in a way, it’s okay to think of it as just dirt.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm.

Katrina Spade: And so that’s a really interesting … Just an interesting thing, I think, 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, right, we’ll have relationships with environmental organizations. So, 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 like, kind of a lot for some families-

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I’m pretty short-

Katrina Spade: And so many families-

Kelly MacLean: So, I might be 2×2. 

Katrina Spade: Yeah. Exactly. So, many families might just want like, a bowl, or a smaller box of the soil-

Kelly MacLean: Yeah.

Katrina Spade: And so, we will … Like, recompose will take care of the remainder, and that will go and nourish land in the Puget Sound region, and conservation lands. So, then you can go, and visit it a little bit like a natural burial ground, but without the human actually buried there. But you can visit a place that is then meaningful to you. So … Yeah. So, I think that even though that like, on the one hand it’s like, “Yeah, technically this is dirt, and that’s what happens when soil is created,” but of course, there’s this deep meaning in it.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I really like what you said about the, you know, the sacredness of it, and then also that like, it being okay for it to just feel like, “Oh, it’s just dirt.” Because it’s hard for the families, you know, the letting go process, obviously, and grief, and there’s something about the reality of like, that person’s physical body is no longer on the earth any more-

Katrina Spade: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: Like, they have moved on, they are in a new … Completely new form. I think could, for the grieving families, also allow them to let go and embrace the impermanence of the situation.

[00:15:00]

Katrina Spade: Yeah. Totally. And I think, also, 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. It also means, on the other end, like, no one should … If you don’t want that dirt, if you don’t want that soil, that’s totally okay. No one should …

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm.

Katrina Spade: Because I think there’s a … I think there’s a lot of people who have ashes of a family member, and don’t really know what to do with them, and know they should do something. That should, should, should feeling. And we’re on the one hand pushing for ritual, and we’re going to give you something that’s meaningful, in the experience, in the place, but at the same time, we’re really trying to remove the judgment from it all, because that doesn’t do anyone any good.

Kelly MacLean: I think that’s great. I think there are so many shoulds involved. In fact, I think most people go along with the way that we do death and burial in this society just 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 that direction when their parent dies, and it’s their decision-

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: Because they just feel that they should go along with it. And 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, you know?

Katrina Spade: I agree. Right. There’s no wrong way to do any of this stuff. And so … But yet, it feels like there must be, and people wonder what the right way is, and so … Yeah.

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

Katrina Spade: Yeah. So, we recently finished a pilot at Washington State University, and that was really … We did that. 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. Never been done before with humans, so we had to prove that in fact, it does work.

Kelly MacLean: [laughs]

Katrina Spade: [laughs] The same process definitely works for human beings. And we did that research in part to bring to the Washington state legislature, or to use in our campaign to Washington state legislature, to legalize recomposition for use here in Washington state. As you probably know, like, funeral laws are state by state, and so, there’s no federal law that would allow recomposition broadly. But we’re starting it here in Washington state, to legalize the process, and hope to then bring it to other states where people want this. 

And so, our bill will be part of the 2019 legislative session, which starts in January. So, I’m pretty excited about the January through March timeline. And if we manage to legalize it … And so far we have legislators really understanding that this is truly about two things, when you boil it all down: It’s about environmental options for death care, and it’s about consumer choice. And so, 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. So, we’ve had great responses from our legislators. If we can legalize in the next … Gosh, that’s about six months from now, then we’ll be raising money to open the first facility, and we’ll do so here in Seattle.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. That’s so incredible. 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?

Katrina Spade: I think not as much legal challenges as it would be, I mean … When it comes down to it, legislators are people, and they’re doing what they think their constituents want. So, there’s not any real legal reason why we would have trouble passing adding recomposition to the list of allowable methods of disposition. So, 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 recompisition to that list. And we’re actually carrying … We’re actually doing a dual bill. We’re hoping to legalize alkaline hydrolysis as well. So-

Kelly MacLean: Oh, amazing, and-

Katrina Spade: Really broadening the options. 

Kelly MacLean: And that’s also known as aquamation?

Katrina Spade: Mm-hmm.

Kelly MacLean: So, for those who don’t know, although, we did do a podcast with the ladies at Resting Waters from Seattle-

Katrina Spade: Oh, cool.

Kelly MacLean: As well. So, we have information on that if anyone’s interested. But … Yeah. It’s essentially a form of water cremation, that is also more … Much more green than cremation.

[00:20:00]

Katrina Spade: Yeah. Totally. So, if we can do both of those, we’ll be the most progressive state in the country when it comes to death care.

Kelly MacLean: Wow. Amazing.

Katrina Spade: Yeah. So, that’s what’s big on our … Those are the big things on the horizon.

Kelly MacLean: And can you say what kind of impact it would have, you know, for … Environmentally? For the … I mean, I don’t know what the stats would be, but for … If half the people opted for recomposition, rather than burial or cremation?

Katrina Spade: Sure. Yeah. I’m not sure I have quite those numbers, but they wouldn’t be too hard to calculate, I guess. But I can tell you that in our calculations … Actually, a team of students from the Netherlands and a PhD in Life Cycle Assessments did this calculation. So, they found that we could save … For each person that chooses recomposition instead of cremation, or burial, we would save about a metric ton of carbon. So, that’s kind of a big number for-

Kelly MacLean: That’s huge!

Katrina Spade: Yeah. 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. So, we actually sequester carbon, rather than emitting it. So, it’s kind of on both sides of the equation gives us a pretty good saving. 

And then in terms of energy use, we’re about an eighth the energy of cremation. And then, finally, I mean, for me, a lot of this is like, we’re creating soil, which is a precious resource, and we’re hopefully creating people who steward the earth in an even deeper way as well. So, I think that 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 like, a really earth aligned model. 

Kelly MacLean: Right. It may not solve climate change, but you also probably won’t solve climate change without addressing what we do with bodies, and looking at the death-

Katrina Spade: I think so.

Kelly MacLean: End of the spectrum, in addition to life. And it’s just nice to end on a green note, you know? I know a lot of people drive Prius’, and, you know, eat … Wear things out of recycled yoga mats, and whatever-


Katrina Spade: Right.

Kelly MacLean: And that’s all great, but it’s kind of nice to have your, you know … It really does matter how you end any story, and it’s nice to have that value, that a lot of people have, reflected … Or, as my Mom said, because I just told her about this interview, and we were talking about it, and she said, “I want to have that done with my body,” and she said, “It’ll be my ‘I’m sorry for all of the-‘”

Katrina Spade: Oh, wow.

Kelly MacLean: ‘”Things I did wrong in my life to the earth.’” [laughs]

Katrina Spade: [laughs]

Kelly MacLean: And I thought that was very sweet, and a little sad. 

Katrina Spade: Yeah. Totally.

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

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

And then talk to your family and friends. That’s huge. Like, even if you don’t want recompose, talk to your family and friends, and tell them what you do want. And opening up the conversation is such a big part of this.

Kelly MacLean: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And before I let you go, I want to ask … So, you have piloted, you’ve done your pilot program. What has the response been from families who have received their, you know, the soil back?

Katrina Spade: Oh, yeah. Well, unfortunately, because it was part of our research program, in terms of the research protocol, we couldn’t give the soil back to families. 

Kelly MacLean: Ah.

Katrina Spade: So, that was a pretty big disappointment. But in terms-

Kelly MacLean: Oh, okay. But like, just for them knowing that this is what happened? 

Katrina Spade: Oh, yeah. I mean, in terms of the experience, it was wonderful, because, I mean, all of the people who donated their bodies for this research like, this was … Sort of like you said, it was one … The last thing … They were contributing in a huge way to this whole movement, and so, it was, I think, a really special thing.

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

[00:25:00]

Katrina Spade: Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: Which we don’t always get, right?

Katrina Spade: Totally. Yeah. I think it would.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. 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 the one big one, but what’s one wish that you have for your own death?

Katrina Spade: What’s one wish?

Kelly MacLean: Yeah.

Katrina Spade: Yeah. I always tell my girlfriend, and my kids, that they have to … I want them to just do some ritual every year on my death anniversary.

Kelly MacLean: Hmm.

Katrina Spade: So, that’s my hope … They’ll do something.

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

Katrina Spade: No, but the other day I was thinking … And it can’t just be like, go out to dinner. That’s not quite … [laughs]

Kelly MacLean: [laughs]

Katrina Spade: Although, I guess that’s pretty good. If they get together, and go out to dinner every year, forever.

Kelly MacLean: Yeah. I think that’s … So long as they eat something that you really loved.

Katrina Spade: There you go. Yeah.

Kelly MacLean: Well, thank you so much, Katrina. I really appreciate it. I know you’re super busy, and I know our listeners will really enjoy learning about this revolution you’re starting, so … And thank you for everything you do.

Katrina Spade: Thank you. It was nice chatting today.

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