Spade began her investigations as a master’s student in architecture with her dissertation A Place for the Urban Dead. Seeking to replicate the process of composting livestock for humans, she invested a decade of research and fundraising in the Urban Death Project, followed by the opening of Recompose in 2020. Her goal was not only to develop a sustainable system, but also to engage community members in the transformation of their loved ones’ body into soil.
Human fertilization legislation has been introduced in the states of Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. A similar bill in California received bipartisan support, but was delayed in August 2021. In some states, such as New York, the Catholic Church has opposed natural organic reduction, describing the process as “more suitable for vegetable peels and eggshells than for human bodies.” But this religious resistance has not stopped the legislation, especially in light of funeral homes full of corpses awaiting cremation and burial during Covid-19.
Another Washington company, Return Home, provides human composting in a facility open to the public, with a capacity of 74 people.
“It’s about restoring our ability to say goodbye to our loved ones,” said CEO Micah Truman. “There is a man who comes to sit every morning and brings two cups of coffee, one for his wife in the pot and one for him. Given the choice, people want to be involved, and that makes a huge difference in the world.”
During my visit to the Forest Laboratory at West Carolina University, Zijdlik stressed the potential of composting, especially since many people believe burial and cremation are their only options: “Animals in agriculture are composted all the time,” she says. “And if human manure starts producing, it could be a massive thing.” She noted the environmental benefits in urban areas with a dearth of green space for cemeteries, as land is a resource that needs to be preserved.
Human compost is not yet available in North Carolina, where I live, but support has grown in a range of states since it was legalized in Washington in 2019. In many municipalities, restrictive rules about composting are initial obstacles to the relatively new process of reducing Natural organic. However, once human composting became legal in Colorado in September 2021, Natural Funeral built receptacles for composting the body and began serving as an addition to green burials and aquariums, which use water and lye to burn corpses rather than flames.
“We are about to put our fourth person on the Chrysalis ship,” said Karen van Vureen, co-founder of Natural Funeral in Boulder. She explained that they named the ship after a construction worker named Chris, who helped build the container that would turn the bodies into soil.
Van Vureen said, “The first person to be put into the ship was a great loss, it was a young man. But the family was able to put handwritten notes on the body and hoist it into the vase to return to land.”
In a world where 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, climate action by individuals can feel intimidating or ineffective. My end-of-life decisions – in collaboration with my daughters – won’t change the climate crisis, but I do believe in the momentum people have created in society, especially when another best act can create connections between life, death and earth. Planning for our own death can engage our family, friends, and communities while nourishing the earth, rather than fueling our climate emergency.