With the Earth screaming for attention through increasingly severe natural disasters, people are realizing our planet is vulnerable. After centuries of believing this world is immune to the ravages of human exploitation, abuse and disregard, a new movement some refer to as “greening” has dawned. With its spread and growing sophistication, more people are acting in novel ways to restore and nurture the long-term health of the planet.
Recently, awareness that this gorgeous planet on which we live and on which we are dependent has spawned interest in green, natural or conservation burials, and human composting.
Often misunderstood to be one and the same, green—or “natural”—burials are closer to Indigenous and ancient burial practices in which bodies are returned to the earth or burned in funeral pyres with no toxic chemicals introduced into the soil or air, and using biodegradable containers. Conservation burials go a step further, with the model calling for cemeteries to operate under the stewardship of conservation organizations, such as land trusts, and comply with protocols that ensure no harm is done to the surrounding plant and wildlife ecosystems.
Human composting steps up to the highest level of “green” and involves a process that accelerates and abbreviates the up to 20 years required for a buried human body to decompose naturally. Through applied biological science, the conversion of human remains into soil, known as human composting or more technically as natural organic reduction (NOR), upends the conventional funeral industry’s environmentally destructive methods.
Bioneers, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 in New Mexico by social entrepreneurs Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, maintains an active presence and leadership team in the Bay Area. The organization serves as a hub, offering workshops, community conversations, a full complement of social media productions that include radio, podcast and book series, a national conference and, through the local Bioneers Network, third-party media projects such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The 11th Hour, and Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
This year’s Annual Bioneers Conference in April featured a robust roster of experts, keynote speakers and artists joined by thousands of civically active people on the UC Berkeley Campus and in venues across downtown Berkeley. Recognizing the commonality to all people of the death experience and with avid interest in “good deaths” along with preserving the planet’s longevity for future generations, the conference, Revolution from the Heart of Nature, included leaders in the areas of human composting, green burials and honoring the Earth as a final act.
Bioneers frequently gathers experts and composes panels who discuss specific, highly relevant-to-the-moment topics. The curated conversations hone general programs according to community interest and address anything from restorative food systems to youth leadership in the environmental movement to health care. Increased public awareness resulting from the programs sparks further discussions and activism, sometimes leading to solutions for eradicating obstacles to greater justice and equity, especially in marginalized communities.
“Contemporary culture has a hard time with death and dying,” says Bioneers President Teo Grossman. “This is true spiritually as well as practically, and it’s a conversation many would simply rather not have. As we know, there is literally no way around it. As we reckon with the impact humanity is having on the planet, exploring innovative approaches to death and dying should naturally be part of that conversation.”
Bioneers’ mission is to offer a public platform for people working on revolutionary solution-seeking projects who perhaps don’t have the bandwidth to do their own outreach to the press, Grossman says. While not claiming to be an expert, he says, “Our relationship with the natural world as humans, and our resulting actions, are clearly of significant importance. Innovative projects and ideas regarding practices around death and dying support extending that conversation to ‘new’ areas. I say ‘new’ in quotes because, as I’m sure the experts in this field have mentioned, the idea of integrating death and dying with nature and natural systems is probably as old as the idea of human rituals—and it’s only relatively recently that it has been dis-integrated.”
In light of Grossman’s earnest step back to remove himself from the limelight, it’s best to turn to one of the experts from the annual event to learn more about the green death movement and the level of interest in the Bay Area.
Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, a licensed, green funeral home based in Seattle, says there is strong interest in innovative death care and human composting specifically.
“This is not just people wanting to return to the Earth,” Spade said. “I love natural [green] burial, but if that’s all people wanted, it would be rising faster in popularity. Human composting lets you approach the whole thing in a way that feels new, even though nature is doing the work. The Recompose process is science coupled with an approach to death care that’s fresh, acknowledges death occurs and remembers that all of us have a capacity to be a part of the experience in a deeper way than might have been allowed by the conventional funeral industry.”
Recompose began accepting bodies for human composting in December 2020. In a nutshell, the process involves placing the body in an eight-foot-long steel cylinder filled with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. The mixture is calibrated for each individual and once the vessel is closed, the body’s transformation begins. During the next 30 days, the Recompose staff monitor the moisture, heat and pH levels inside the vessels, occasionally rotating them, until the body is transformed into soil. The soil is then transferred to curing bins, where it remains for two weeks before being tested for toxins and cleared for pickup. Eight-to-12 weeks after the process begins, the human soil can be used to enrich a garden, donated to a conservation organization to be used on privatized land or spread over multiple locations.
A composted body produces approximately one cubic yard of soil, an amount that fills a pickup truck bed and weighs upwards of 1,500 pounds. Importantly, and a reason many people are gravitating to NOR, is that the practice avoids conventional burial or cremation, which collectively adds one metric ton of carbon dioxide, per body, to the atmosphere. Additionally, the Recompose process does not use up valuable land or pollute the soil, and reduces contributions to climate change related to the production and transport of headstones, caskets, grave liners, urns and other items. It’s estimated the carbon output from a year’s worth of cremations in the United States is equivalent to burning 400 million pounds of coal.
“Some people say, ‘Composting humans has happened forever,’” Spade says. “But actually composting is a process that is by definition human-managed natural decomposition that is accelerated. Composting in any industry is something people are doing, not de-composting happening out in the wild. I think that’s a helpful distinction. Natural burial is just about a perfect solution for our dead, but because it takes land, it’s mostly a rural solution.”
She adds, “With composting, it’s possible to serve many more people in cities, because it doesn’t require the land of conventional burial or the time of natural burial that happens in the ground. Depending on soil quality and the climate, it takes years to decompose or desiccate a human body. With NOR, we’re transforming the human body inside of a highly managed vessel system—adding oxygen via a basic air pump and the exact recipe of plant materials that balance carbon and nitrogen so that the body will break down in a relatively short amount of time. We’re also monitoring for temperature because we want to make sure the material is safe for use on plants.”
The most common question Spade is asked about the process involves the bones. The mulch-like material at the end of the first 30 days still has bones, along with any non-organic matter, such as a titanium hip. The bones are reduced, basically pulverized as they are in a cremation, and turned into a sand-like substance. Inorganic materials are recycled, if possible. Once all the microbial activity is complete and the soil dries out, she says the remains scientifically, biologically and by look and feel, resemble compost a person might buy at a nursery.
Lynette Pang is a Bay Area resident, passionate gardener and an early investor in Recompose. After more than 20 years working in the investment management industry, she decided the second half of her life would involve something revolutionary. She began reading books on death, dying and grief, including From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty.
“The book is a treasure,” Pang says. “But one chapter stood out: it was about something called the Urban Death Project. Wanting to learn more, I turned to the internet and learned about Recompose, formerly called the Urban Death Project. The concept of human composting was right up my alley. It just makes sense. I truly believe the practice of human composting will change, and maybe even save, the world. It is an investment in hope.”
Pang says she plans to participate in Recompose and hopes taboos surrounding death will diminish and that people will speak freely about how they want to die. “We are born, we live and then we die,” she says. “To me, it’s just that. When it is time to make my exit, whether that is tomorrow or many, many years from now, I shall be gifted to the earth as glorious, black gold.”
To do so, at least until 2027, Pang and other Californians will have to travel to Seattle.
“California is a great example of what’s holding NOR back,” Spade says. “The regulatory law passed in 2022 authorized NOR, but then there was a four-year regulatory period tacked on. How could it take four years to write regulations around NOR? Washington [state] was first to legalize the process, and we have two agencies that wrote regulations that are straightforward and make everything safe. Washington passed the bill in May 2019 and it went into effect May 2020. We did it first and had to do it from scratch, but other states could look to Washington [to write their regulations].”
She points out it takes a fair amount of capital to get a facility up and running, and adds that “any type of funeral care isn’t something you can snap your fingers and have up and running instantly.” In the meantime, Spade dreams and plans to open and direct facilities similar to Recompose’s Seattle home base in the top 12 urban centers in the United States. Conversations to franchise the brand and system to funeral homes and cemeteries have begun as the leadership team structures licensing agreements.
Spade recounts a favorite client story. “It’s about a person named Wayne who died and his sister brought his remains home to where he gardened his whole life. His neighbors and friends came with five-gallon buckets and took some of him home to their own gardens.” Spade says half of the families bring a truck or trailer, pick up the soil and take it home; the other 50% choose to donate it, through Recompose, to conservation efforts. “We have land partners that are conservation trusts owned by nonprofits,” she says. “Clients can donate soil to that trust so it is used in the forest to nourish the land. Families can go visit those places.”
A more universal story is the number of people who learn about human composting and green burials and say, “I want that.”
“As I began to grow Recompose, it became clear again and again that there was a lot of interest out there for options in funeral care that are sustainable and aligned with the planet,” Spade says. “Having your last gesture be a good one on the Earth, they say, is important.”