Burying Green: Eco-Friendly Death Care On The Rise
Dying, it turns out, isn’t carbon neutral. Like many of the choices we make in our lifetimes, the choice to cremate or preserve our bodies after death comes with tradeoffs as well. With preservation and burial, there’s the carbon cost of cemetery space, the materials to make a coffin, and the chemicals required to prevent decay. With cremation, the body’s carbon is released into the atmosphere through the burning of natural gas.
This is one of the reasons why companies are starting to offer more eco-friendly options, such as water-assisted cremation. Composting human bodies is another option, allowing our carbon to be sequestered in the soil, and providing nutrients for ecosystems or gardens. But in the United States, these lower-carbon funereal options are often against the law.
Now, that’s slowly changing, with pressure from people who wish to use those options for themselves when the time comes. Producer Kathleen Davis discusses these issues and more with mortician Caitlin Doughty and Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a company that has pioneered the practice of human composting. Plus, the relationship between grief, ritual, and the choices we have for our mortal remains.
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Katrina Spade is founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington.
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, activist, and author of From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.
IRA FLATOW: And now we’re going to talk about death and what happens to our bodies when we die. So a content warning if you’re sensitive to the topic.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Ira, let’s get real for a moment. Have you thought about what your plans are for what to do with your body after you die?
IRA FLATOW: I am giving it some thought what I want to happen to my body. And I’m thinking about the time I went to a body farm, where people donate their bodies for forensic research. And I watched scientists watch how the body decays naturally in the ground. And that struck me as an interesting way to leave your legacy.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, that’s why I brought it up. There’s this growing movement in the funeral industry towards something called eco-friendly death care, ways of making what happens to us after we die better for the Earth. Because traditional burial and cremation, they really do have an ecological toll.
So joining me to talk about green death care are my guests Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author, based in Southern California, and Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington.
Welcome back, Caitlin, and welcome, Katrina, to Science Friday.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Thank you for having us.
KATRINA SPADE: Thank you.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So Caitlin, as I mentioned, traditional burial and cremation are wildly popular in the US. Can you put into perspective just how popular these options are?
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Well, wildly popular sort of indicates that it’s because people love them. They’re like chocolate. But I think if you actually look at it, what they are is just available. At the turn of the 20th century, a commercial funeral industry began to develop, where people felt they had to go to a funeral home to have their bodies cared for and buried after they died.
And so with that developed a system of it’s really what the funeral homes want to offer you that you get to choose. And especially for the last 20 or 30 years, it’s basically been only this traditional burial, meaning the full embalming, the preservation of the body, the fancy casket made of hardwood or metal, the big metal or concrete vault in the ground, and this kind of Fort Knox under the Earth where your body goes, or the counterpoint to that, which is cremation. Yes, it’s less expensive. It’s considered more ecologically friendly. But as you said, there is still a real environmental toll there.
So it’s not that these things are popular, it’s just kind of the two options. It’s when you go in the funeral home, it’s, do you want burial or cremation? And most people think that is all that’s available.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So as you just hinted, I was always under the impression that cremation would be a more eco-friendly option, in contrast to traditional burial. Can you explain just how much of an ecological impact traditional burial and cremation actually have?
KATRINA SPADE: A metaphor I like to use is comparing traditional burial to like a Hummer or a big SUV, comparing a cremation to, say, a Prius, an electric car, and comparing eco-friendly burial, or something like composting, to a bike, in the sense that they all have varying environmental tolls. Your values might align more with one or the other of those machines and how you get around.
I think we can understand rationally why a more traditional burial, where you’re using formaldehyde in the body and you’re putting these metals and hardwoods into the ground, just by sheer material resource, I think it’s easier to understand than cremation, which, again, was always sort of promoted, especially since the 1960s, as this thing that is so much better for the environment. But cremation is natural gas. It’s large amounts of natural gas– about the equivalent of a 500-mile car trip when you have a cremation.
And so yeah, it is one time. And I would never shame anyone for getting a cremation, especially since it’s the less expensive option by a large margin. But, at the same time, it also spews mercury into the atmosphere. It causes issues with carbon release.
So at the same time, if you are looking for something really aligned with your values environmentally, you might be looking not directly at cremation anymore.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I’m Kathleen Davis, and this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
We’re talking about green death care, including human composting, with my guests Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author based in Southern California, and Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington.
So Katrina, I want to talk a little bit about the work that you do. So your company, Recompose, makes human compost. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
KATRINA SPADE: Sure. I actually started the work because I was looking at those two options of conventional burial and cremation. And let’s just talk about cremation for a minute. It struck me that it was like a little bit wasteful. Like, surely, I’d have something left in my body when I died, something to give back. Even if, god willing, I’m like a really old lady, kind of withered and not much left, I still would like to give back to the Earth that supported me my whole life.
And cremation just felt like I’d be destroying those nutrients. Why? A little bit like it was such a shame. So I started thinking about other options for our bodies when we die. And specifically, could I design something that was an ecological process that was meant for our urban centers? So something that we could set up in our cities that would give us back to the Earth.
While I was mulling all of this over, a friend of mine knew I was thinking about this stuff and she called me and she said, Katrina, did you know that farmers have been composting whole cows for a long time? And it was definitely an epiphany, definitely that light bulb moment. Well, if you can compost a cow, surely you can compost a human being.
I started working on refining that process of composting livestock, and turning it into a human-focused system, where we would compost human beings and turn them into soil after they die.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Can you walk me through the process of how it actually works?
KATRINA SPADE: Yes. So composting, as most people who’ve tried it before probably know, is the mix of carbon materials and nitrogen materials. Those are your greens and your browns in your backyard compost pile. We’ve taken that concept and we refine it and we control it even more than your backyard compost pile.
And what that means is we have a mixture of plant material that have the perfect balance of carbon and nitrogen materials. In our case, in Recompose’s case, we use wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. And we have a composting vessel. We lay the body onto a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, and cover it with more of the same. And then, over the next month, the body is decomposing naturally inside of that vessel.
And it’s doing so thanks to the work of microbes that are naturally occurring. They’re on us all right now as we speak. They’re on the wood chips and they’re on the body that has died. And as long as we can provide the right mixture and recipe of that plant material and the right amount of oxygen during that month, the microbes are quite happy and they break everything down.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: What is the idea behind turning yourself into human compost? I mean, do you foresee that people are going to be using their remains to help grow a tree, for example?
KATRINA SPADE: We’ve had clients who’ve grown an orchard with their person’s soil. We’ve had folks bring the soil back to their neighborhood and give it out to neighbors. So this person’s soil went all over the neighborhood to different gardens.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Wow.
KATRINA SPADE: And we’ve had people say, I love roses. I want to be on my rose garden that I’ve been tending my whole life. A lot of times, people with ashes from cremation, you take those ashes to a special place and you spread them. Maybe it’s a forest. Maybe it’s at the ocean. This is the same idea, except you really get to be productive after you’ve died. You’re really going to actually make a difference, a positive difference, on that earth and in that soil.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: This is a really good point. Because cremation, it’s not just the fact that the cremation process and the big cremation machine uses the resources that it does. It’s also kind of existentially what is left at the end of the process. Because during the cremation, in that incredibly high-heat environment, all the organic material burns away, and poof, it’s gone. And what you’re left with is inorganic bone fragments.
So you can scatter those inorganic bone fragments underneath a tree or in a river, and that’s quite a beautiful ceremony. But your bone fragments from a cremation aren’t really going out to do the work that human-composted material is.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: How many people have you actually composted at Recompose at this point?
KATRINA SPADE: We’ve composted 185 people so far.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Trailblazers.
KATRINA SPADE: Trailblazers, all of them. Actually, that’s a great name for them, too.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Blazing a trail, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: We have to take a break. And when we come back, more on human composting and other green ways of sending off our loved ones. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. We’re continuing our conversation about eco-friendly death care, alternative ways of treating our bodies when we die. I’m joined by my guests, Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author, based in Southern California, and Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington.
Now, is human-based compost any better, let’s say– or more nutrient rich than, say, the compost that you would make from your kitchen scraps?
KATRINA SPADE: I love this question because I had the same– well, I actually had the assumption about five years ago. I was like, clearly, human compost is of higher quality than any other compost. And I asked my soil scientist, Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, that very question. She was like, no. No. It’s going to be really good compost. That’s it. We could even call it decent.
And so we’ve actually– I like the idea of becoming really decent compost. We kind of let go of the hubris of being human and just say, yeah, I’m going to go back to nature. That pine needle over there is pretty good, and so am I. It kind of releases a little bit of the pressure of being perfect or even sacred forever.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: I mean, think about it. In the United States, the way that we do forever graves when you’re buried is very different to most of the rest of the world. In most of the rest of the world, you rent a grave. You don’t own a grave forever in eternity. But here in the United States, we have something called perpetual care, where the assumption is you will be there forever.
And in the ecological movement, there’s a lot of– whether you’re going to be composted, whether you’re going to be buried at a conservation land, whether you’re going to have your body be eaten by animals at a human body farm, all of these things address the fundamental issue of hubris and address the idea that like, you know what? I guess my body is not better than banana compost or dead cow compost, or whatever it is. We’re all organic material. And at the end of the life, isn’t what we’re supposed to do– just give that back to the cycle?
KATHLEEN DAVIS: There is something very lovely about that idea, I think. And so we have been talking about human composting under this umbrella of eco-friendly death care. When you stack this up against, say, traditional burial, cremation, is it really a more green option?
KATRINA SPADE: Yes, I’m very pleased to say that we are not greenwashing in this case. We’ve had lifecycle assessments done on the process, and looking at cremation, conventional burial, and then human composting– also sometimes called natural organic reduction. And there’s two pieces to it. One is, what are we avoiding in terms of toxic practices or pollution and in terms of the carbon footprint, with not choosing cremation and conventional burial?
Interestingly, cremation and conventional burial have the same carbon output just about. I think it’s 540 pounds of carbon, if I’m not mistaken. It’s not tremendous. I mean, it is like a 500-mile car drive, right, Caitlin? But it’s significant. And they’re on par because you’ve got, on the one hand, the burning of fossil gas and the emitting of carbon that way. And on the other hand, you’ve got the manufacture and transport of caskets and grave liners, and then the upkeep of that cemetery forever. That adds up to approximately the same carbon output.
So if you eschew those choices, you avoid that carbon footprint. And then also, with human composting, you’re sequestering carbon in the soil. And so, combined with the avoidance and the sequestering, we have about just over a metric ton of carbon saved if you compost yourself as opposed to the other two options.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Wow.
KATRINA SPADE: It’s not bad.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Not bad at all. I want to zoom out a little bit. Caitlin, what other technologies or processes in this green death care arena do you think are really promising right now, that could become more popularized?
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Well, as far as technology, I think you’re really looking at natural organic reduction, human composting, and something called aquamation, which is much closer to what we think of as cremation, or more basic cremation, but it’s essentially water cremation. Instead of going into a chamber that burns you down to inorganic ash, it’s going into a chamber that uses high heat water and base chemicals and pressure to bring you down to basically the same bones at the end.
And aquamation is legal in about 20 states. It’s always in flux. But if you’re looking for a cremation, if you’re looking for a way to have something in an urban environment that’s less expensive, it is a technology that really would be beneficial to you. It’s better for the environment. And I think some people, depending on where you’re coming from, sort of in the grand scheme of things, do prefer the idea of water as your final disposition rather than heat and flames.
So I think, as far as technology, those really are two golden hopes as we look into the future right now. Although I hope people out there are already scheming on additional ways that we can help the funeral industry. But then there’s always green burial. Which is you dig a hole in the ground and you put the body in. Which of course, they used to just call burial.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Right.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: But since we put all the bells and whistles and things that the funeral industry sells you into it, now it’s green burial or natural burial. But really, that is always available to us– just a hole in the ground. But even that isn’t as widely available as it should be. So I think the combination of all of these things working together helps to get people excited– not about dying, but excited about the kind of contribution that they can make when they die and really how to die in line with their values.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to stay on this topic of legality and policy for a little bit, because there’s clearly a lot to this side of the conversation. Katrina, what is the current legal status in the US of human composting?
KATRINA SPADE: Human composting was not legal in any state when I started thinking about, could I bring it to the public? So I started working with some legal experts to figure out how we could do that. And it turns out it was fairly straightforward, in that we had to find legislators who believed in what we were doing. And they wrote bills to legalize an entirely new death care process.
We started in Washington state, and we legalized natural organic reduction, AKA human composting, in 2019. And my company, Recompose, led that, and celebrated very hard when that bill got signed by the governor. It was exciting. There were a lot of huge smiles in the picture of the signature, considering we were there to talk about, and sign a bill about, death. It was very big smiles, kids in the picture, and there we are signing a bill about death care.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: In the years following that success, Vermont, Oregon, and, just very recently, California have passed bills into law that legalize human composting. And there’s currently a bill in New York state. Do you think that more states will follow suit?
KATRINA SPADE: We’ll see other states following because it’s been proven that this works and that the operation of a facility can go very well and it’s all been proven. But it’s been a lot of work, to be honest. And it’s taken a lot of people who care to write in their letters and call their legislators and say, can you hurry up and get this done?
I actually have one friend, who was 96. She was living at a senior living facility. And she called her legislator and she was like, look, I don’t have very long. Get it together! Make it happen. Legalize human composting.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Is part of the issue here that not just lawmakers but the general public don’t necessarily want to talk about death and may be grossed out by the idea of having conversations about how we think about death care?
KATRINA SPADE: When it comes to Recompose, and human composting, when I talk to people about it, I think that there’s a mixture of a general grief about the state of the climate and the state of the planet. It makes you think about your own mortality in a different way and it makes you really think about that last gesture you’ll make, and could you somehow connect the threads there?
And then I think also we’ve got young people coming into this kind of unstable world in a lot of ways, with the pandemic and climate change and all the things together, and they’re just– I don’t know– they’re ready to think about this now.
For the older generation– let’s say my parents age, in their 70s and 80s– first of all, it’s a large generation, as we all know– the baby boomers, right? And a lot of those folks have watched their parents die, and I think have looked at that whole occurrence, from the nursing home through the hospital and then onto the funeral home, and I think looked at that and said, like, wow, that was not awesome. Can’t we do better?
And so a lot of my job, and Recompose’s job, is to say, here’s another way. Whether or not you even care about the environment or you even care about composting, we think you might appreciate a different approach to death, to the end of life, that is just not your conventional, traditional funeral home. So a lot of it is just wanting something new, I think.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: And funeral directors– and they know I feel this way– I don’t think have done a good enough job of meeting our public, and humanity, where they are and what they want as far as what happens to their body when they die, both ritually and, as we say, body disposal-wise, which is what we’re talking about today. And I agree with Katrina. I think that people do want to talk about this.
And I think the very rapid adoption, both by legislatures and by the general public, of these ideas show that there is absolutely a desire to talk about it and engage it, and to have something.
If we know that the planet is in trouble and we know that society is in some ways in trouble, we think about, what is the end look like? And if we can bring people just a little bit of comfort, that at least their end will match how they see their lives in some way and will be comforting whether they’re old or young, there’s really something to that. And people come to our movement all the time who say– they think about this stuff and it really worried them. And they go, is anybody else thinking about it? And then they look around and they find us. And we’re like, hello, it’s what we do all day. Welcome.
KATRINA SPADE: Rest assured.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Yeah. And I think– rest assured– yeah, that’s our new end of life company. I do think that it brings people some comfort to know that there are people out there who care about this and are working hard at it and who want to make this better for them.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
I’m talking about death care and eco-friendly ways of giving our loved ones their final resting place, like human compost, with my guests Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author, based in Southern California, and Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington.
One thing that I think– I have experienced– I’m sure many people who are listening. have experienced– is that, when somebody dies, it is not just a very emotional experience, it can actually be very expensive and it can be a financial burden, and surprisingly so, I think. I mean, can green options maybe be a little bit less expensive for people? Is there a financial aspect to this as well?
KATRINA SPADE: Well, cremation, as Caitlin pointed out, is definitely, and probably always going to be, the cheapest option. It’s worth noting that the carbon cost is not calculated into a cremation. So if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that, it’s worth noting that the $1,000 it would probably cost you to be cremated doesn’t include the carbon impact.
Conventional burial, traditional burial, is the most expensive. And I think– in a city like New York, I’m not even sure you can find a plot anymore– but it’s going to start at, I don’t know, 30 grand and up. Like, good luck. And I think 12,000 is maybe the baseline for a traditional burial, because there’s casket and grave liner and all the work that goes into the cemetery.
Our process for human composting is $7,000. That includes the pickup of the body, the paperwork around the death– like the death certificate– our staff guiding friends and family through the whole process. And we’re tending to this person’s body as they compost for about a month, a month and a half. And so there is this aspect of the work and the time that we are taking to tend this process. It’s not cremation. It doesn’t take four hours.
So Recompose also has a community fund that we build that is there to subsidize the cost for people that can’t otherwise afford it. And we take that very seriously. And we’re constantly thinking of ways to build that fund.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: The process of grieving somebody who has died is a very personal experience. It’s often incredibly emotional. It can be full of ritual. How do green death care options, say, turning yourself into human compost, how does that change the grieving process?
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: I would argue that it sets you up– nothing helps you skip over the grieving process. But by choosing something that is more engaged and confronting of reality– the same thing that I say about sitting with your mom’s dead body after she passes, just until you feel something shift in you, knowing that her body is breaking down, that it’s in that vessel for a month, and that it’s then going to another purpose, as organic material– you have to be on that journey with her. There’s no option to just have the hospital let her out in the middle of the night, be taken to the crematory, and be returned to you in a box. There’s no option for tamping it down and ignoring it. It’s the reality of what’s happening.
So can these options help you skip over the hard work of grieving? No. Alas, nothing can really do that. The only way out is through. But I do believe that it sets you up for this journey in a realistic and quite loving way.
KATRINA SPADE: For my clients that took the soil and gathered in this field and dug these holes for these small seedlings that would then grow to be an orchard some day, that work– I mean, I can only imagine that work and how it helped set them up for the grieving process.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Katrina, I was hoping that you could send us off with maybe some feedback that you have received from families who have gone through this process of composting a loved one. I mean, what do you hear from people who go through this process?
KATRINA SPADE: I think people are a little bit surprised. When they step into our facility and they see the images of the forest where they may have chosen to donate their person’s soil, where it will be going after they’ve been composted, and they just realize that this is a very tangible thing to do with a person’s body after death– it’s real and it’s analog and it’s, in some ways, as simple as can be.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, there we have it. I would love to thank my guests. Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and author based in Southern California, and Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, based in Seattle, Washington. Thank you, both, for joining me today.
KATRINA SPADE: Thank you so much.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Thank you, Kathleen.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.