27 Feb 2020

Human composting to begin in the US

From Nine To Noon, 9:39 am on 27 February 2020

A United States firm is planning to offer the world's first human composting service from next year.

Recompose, which is based in in Washington state, has done a pilot study and claims that its process saves more than a tonne of carbon, compared to cremation or traditional burial.

close up hand holding soil peat moss

Photo: 123RF

“Recomposition came from the idea that farm animals had been composted for many decades…and [founder Katrina Spade] Katrina had the idea to adapt that process for humans,” Recompose communications manager Anna Swenson says.

Swenson says when a body is buried in the ground, in a conventional US burial, it’s placed in the ground in a casket with a concrete vault. Decomposition takes place but much longer than natural organic reduction, or recomposition. 

“[Recomposition] takes place in a vessel, which is a stainless steel tube, so the process is contained, the body is placed in the vessel with wood chips, alfalfa and straw and the microbes that naturally occur on our bodies and on that material breaks down the body in a gentle transformation from the body into…a rich soil, similar to a soil that you would find at a garden store.”

Swenson says recomposition is a similar process to decomposition but it happens faster.

This is because there is a lot more oxygen, the microbes generate heat and the remains are gently mixed, she says.

“This [mixing] process can sometimes sound scary to people but in cremation…as well, at the end of the process, the bones are broken up.”

It’s about two months before the family gets their loved one's remains back, she says.

Environmental impact

Swenson says the recomposition process uses one eighth of the energy of conventional burial.

“In conventional burial, the energy comes through the transport as well as the creation of the casket, the concrete vault and of course the carbon impact of plane-based cremation comes from the natural gas used. Because recomposition uses natural microbes, we do have some transport cost of course, and we do use wood chips, but it’s much lower.

“For every person who chooses recomposition instead of burial or cremation, it’s the carbon equivalent of one metric tonne that is either not put into the atmosphere because there isn’t natural gases going up the smokestack or there is also the sequestering of the energy that goes into the soil.”

Families are also able to donate the soil remains to one of Recompose’s conservation partners who use it in a forest in southern Washington that was illegally logged in the 1930s.