Colorado’s First Legally Composted Human Remains Laid to Rest

A process called 'natural reduction' creates about a cubic yard of soil.

patting soil onto a newly planted sapling

Ngampol Thongsai / EyeEm / Getty Images

Less than a year after legalizing the practice, Colorado last month laid to rest its first composted human remains. The ceremony, which took place on the grounds of the newly dedicated Colorado Burial Preserve, included dozens of people spreading the soil created from the deceased.  

"They were laid in as a beloved and they will lay out as a living soil gift back to this preserve," Seth Viddal, owner of The Natural Funeral, a holistic funeral home in Boulder County, CO., told 9News' Marc Sallinger. "It will nourish the land that’s here. It will be a foundation for the seeds that we’re mixing into that soil today. It’ll be the foundation of life here forever."

Human composting, also known as “natural organic reduction” or “terramation”, is a green burial alternative that expedites the process of returning remains to the earth. Whereas the natural burial of a body can take up to two years to fully decompose (not including the bones which, depending on the soil type, can remain for decades), human composting converts an entire body to soil in only a matter of months. 

So far, this approach to green burial has only been legalized in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—with the latter becoming the first to approve the method in 2019. California, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, and Vermont all have bills under consideration. 

How the Human Composting System Works

We’ve touched upon human composting here on Treehugger before, but it’s worth diving in again to explain the details of how this process works and which major players are helping to advance it. 

Those already familiar with the process of composting, an aerobic method of decomposing organic solid wastes, will see some similarities with the human version. A body is placed in a vessel (the design of which can vary depending on the provider) on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, and then layered with more of the same. The vessel, residing in a temperature-controlled environment, is sealed and fed a steady supply of oxygen. Over the course of several months, microbes break down all of the organic material, including the bones. The end result is nearly a cubic feet of soil (3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet) that the family can choose to truck home or have donated to farms or conservation efforts. 

“So basically, all we humans need to do is create the right environment for nature to do its job,” Katrina Spade, founder of the human composting company Recompose, told NPR’s Manoush Zomorodi. “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.”

Since only three states have legalized human composting, you’re presently limited to only a handful of companies offering the service. Fortunately, all accept bodies from out-of-state. 

The aforementioned Recompose, located in Washington, offers vessels measuring 8 feet long x 4 feet tall and arranged in a hexagonal array. The resulting soil amendment, created over six to eight weeks, can either be taken home by families or donated to Bells Mountain, a 700-acre nonprofit land trust in southern Washington. Total cost, which includes options such as body transport (within 30 miles), personalized support, and more is $7,000

Return Home, also located in Washington, calls their human composting process “terramation”, and offers 74 custom designed vessels. Similar to Recompose, the natural breakdown process takes up to 60 days. Families can either choose to take the soil with them, spread on the company’s dedicated eight acres of woodlands, or donate to local land in need of revitalization. Pre-purchasing their service costs just under $5,000. 

The Natural Funeral, the only human composting service currently in Colorado, lends a more rustic design to their vessel (called the “chrysalis”) and can transform human remains into soil in about six months. Families can either take all of the compost, via trailer or truck, or have some or all of it donated to local farms. Their basic human composting package is $7,900

What About Cremation? 

If you’re a regular reader of Treehugger, you likely know that cremation is an energy-intensive burial option. As Katrina Spade of Recompose explains, it’s not exactly an improvement from conventional burial in terms of ecological impact. 

“Put together the manufacture and transport of all of that stuff that goes with the conventional burial,” she told NPR, “and compare it to cremation, which uses fossil gas to burn the body and emits particulates and mercury and carbon into the atmosphere, and in fact, they're really on par with each other from a carbon footprint standpoint.”

But even with all of that in mind, she adds, choosing the way we want our remains to be handled is extremely personal—the last great choice we have—so there’s no wrong way when it’s done with intention. Just thinking about it, something many of us (myself included) hesitate to do, is a step in the right direction.  

The human composting method is also a great option for those who live in urban environments and desire a green burial, but don’t necessarily want to leave the cities they love after they pass on. 

“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,” Spade said. “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? So those were the very first inklings of this idea.”

Personally, I rather like the idea of (a) becoming soil quickly, and (b) my family members being able to divide me up for landscaping projects as they see fit. Toss me in an orchard over here, under an oak over there, or mix me into a bed of zinnias. There’s beauty in being reduced to the very thing we depend on, in joining the vast river of life under our feet. It all sounds like quite the adventure. 

"The cycle of life is truly going to continue as a result of what is happening today," Seth Viddal said at last month’s ceremony in Colorado. "More than anything, this proves that we can do this. That this can be very meaningful to families. That this can be a very sacred way to deal with a loved one following loss."

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