With the beginning of Spring, the time of yard chores has begun. Planting flowers, putting out the lawn furniture, and getting that compost pile going. Although, this year brings a new type of composting into the mix, as the world has taken one step further along the path of composting human bodies.
In 2019, Digital Dying covered Washington state, which became the first state to allow human composting when Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that permits the process.
“I will make the claim that this bill may change the world,” the bill’s main sponsor, Senator Jamie Pedersen, said in February of that year. “What I think is remarkable is that this universal human experience of death remains almost untouched by technology, and in fact, the only two methods for disposition of human remains that are authorized in our statutes are methods that have been with us for thousands of years: Burying a body or burning a body.”
Although human composting became the popular term of use, proponents of the Washington state bill use the phrase “natural organic reduction.” Sounds a bit like a new-age health drink. Either way, it is a trend that Digital Dying has been covering for some time. We thought that, given the new season, this might be a good time to check back in on some of the human composting options we have covered over the years and see just where these projects stand.
1. Katrina Spade, and the wonders of Recompose
Digital Dying first wrote about human body composting when we covered Katrina Spade, back in 2014, when her Urban Death Project had just recently begun working on a greener alternative. The project has come a long way. Spade has given a popular TED Talk, and earlier this month appeared on NPR. “Recompose is a public benefit corporation powered by people who believe in changing the current death care paradigm,” their website reads.
Recompose is based in the Seattle area, features a staff of 17, and has an array of charismatic advisors that includes the alternative funeral practitioner Caitlin Doughty, whom Digital Dying has written about extensively. Recompose also has soil research advisors and a death doula.
Spade has a masters’ degree in architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a certificate in Sustainable Design and Building from Yestermorrow Design/Build School, and a Bachelors in Cultural Anthropology from Haverford College. In her appearance on NPR earlier this month, Spade explained more about just how the composting works.
“What we do at Recompose is place each individual body into a vessel, a stainless-steel container that’s about 8 feet long and 4 feet tall,” she said. “And it’s housed in a hexagonal array. So if you look at this vessel system from the front, it looks a little bit like a beehive. And inside of each vessel is one human body laid into a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw and” covered “with more of the same. And then over the course of a month, we provide oxygen to the vessel via a fan system. We’re kind of constantly aerating that plant material, which is what provides the perfect environment for” natural microbes. “And they’ll break the body down and the wood chips and straw in about 30 days.”
She added, “It’s like the opposite of antibacterial soap. Instead of fighting them, we welcome microbes and bacteria in with open arms. These tiny, amazing creatures break down molecules into smaller molecules and atoms, which are then incorporated into new molecules.”
One major inspiration of Recompose is to move beyond conventional burial, which as NPR host Manoush Zomorodi somewhat critically explains, “means a body filled with embalming fluid put in a casket that’s placed in the ground surrounded by a concrete liner.”
The reinvention of American death care has been a topic we have touched upon regularly at Digital Dying. Spade discusses it rather eloquently: “I set out on a plan to redesign death care. Could I create a system that was beneficial to the Earth, that used nature as a guide rather than something to be feared, something that was gentle to the planet? That planet, after all, supports our living bodies our whole lives… And I didn’t like the wastefulness of it. Even aside from, like, the pollution, I thought, you know, I might have something left to give back when I die, like, whatever is in this husk of a body. And so why burn it up?”
Spade says she was inspired by the green burial and natural cemetery movements, but as a city-dweller felt left out because these options often require large open spaces more common to countryside settings. “It’s really about returning to the Earth,” she stated. “And I thought, that’s beautiful. And yet I love living in cities, and I hate the idea that if you live in a city, like so many in the world, you’d have to leave it after you die in order to choose an environmentally beneficial choice. So I was thinking about this. And what would the urban equivalent to natural burial be? What would it mean to return to the Earth but stay in my city?”
The rest of the interview is worth checking out yourself because Spade talks about her inspiration for Recompose, which comes from the practice of livestock mortality composting, which is pretty fascinating!
2. The Mushroom Burial Suit
The item that about ten years ago first stormed the death care world was known as the Infinity Burial Site, though more popularly became known as the “mushroom burial suit.” As related by our friends at the funeral industry news site, Connecting Directors, the alternative-burial product promised a gentle return to the earth as your body becomes compost and nourishes a thriving colony of fungi. “The hype reached a peak when news broke that 90210 star Luke Perry had chosen the mushroom suit as his preferred burial option before his sudden death in early 2019,” Connecting Directors noted.
In May 2019, Perry’s daughter, Sophie, revealed that he was indeed buried in the suit. “Any explanation I give will not do justice to the genius that is the mushroom burial suit, but it is essentially an eco-friendly burial option via mushrooms,” she posted from the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in California. “My dad discovered it and was more excited by this than I have ever seen him. He was buried in this suit, one of his final wishes. They are truly a beautiful thing for this beautiful planet, and I want to share it with all of you.”
The suit is made by a company called Coeio, a name taken from a Latin word that means assemble, or come together. “We have a whole line of pet burial products,” the site now states, with “sizes to accommodate most pets, from extra small to extra large.”
But there has been some pushback on the suit. The Connecting Directors article questions just how efficient the suit actually is at decomposing, and also the value of purchasing a product to enable a natural process. “As with any trend, the popularity of ‘green burial’ will bring out products of varying quality,” the Connecting Directors article states. “It’s inevitable as eager entrepreneurs mine a lucrative new market. As a generation of eco-conscious baby boomers ages and young people embrace ‘death positivity,’ interest in alternative burial options will continue to grow.”
3. Capsula Mondi – The Human Body Burial Pod
Capsula Mondi is another decomposition-based human burial option that Digital Dying covered early on. The project is still around and has a savvy new website that features a series of fun photos laying out their concept.
Someone presses their hand up affectionately against the rough bark of a tree: “Hi, Dad!”
Another person wraps their arms affectionately around an entire trunk, giving the tree a hug: “I love you, Grandma!”
Looking up into the branches of a handsome pine tree a person exclaims: “John, how you’ve grown!”
“Capsula Mundi…envisions a different approach to the way we think about death,” the website states. “It’s an egg-shaped pod, an ancient and perfect form, made of biodegradable material, where our departed loved ones are placed for burial. Ashes will be held in small egg-shaped biodegradable urns while bodies will be laid down in a fetal position in larger pods. The Capsula will then be buried as a seed in the earth. A tree, chosen in life by the deceased, will be planted on top of it and serve as a memorial for the departed and as a legacy for posterity and the future of our planet. Family and friends will continue to care for the tree as it grows. Cemeteries will acquire a new look and, instead of the cold grey landscape we see today, they will grow into vibrant woodlands.”
It really does all sound wonderful. However, Capsula Mundi’s exciting human burial pod option has not necessarily hit stores yet.
“The body pod instead is still in a development phase and is not ready for the market,” the website states.
For now, one can buy a homemade “Capsula Mundi biodegradable urn,” available in cute little biodegradable boxes on their shop page. Of course, if one is in the mood for spring shopping, they can always check out Funeralwise’s own online store, which offers pet memorials, memorial jewelry, and various ecologically friendly products for urns and ashes. It just might be the perfect gift, for the new season~