AUBURN, Wash. (KOIN) – “When I saw this, I thought this was going to change the world,” said Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home, as he stood outside a nondescript warehouse in Auburn, a suburb of Seattle, in early March.
Inside, construction workers are racing to keep Washington’s largest natural organic reduction plant operational by April to meet growing demand for an alternative to traditional burial or cremation.
Truman worked in banking and finance and entered the funeral industry a little over two years ago when he heard about the move to legalize natural organic reduction, commonly known as human composting. Return Home calls it “Terramation”.
Regardless of the name, the concept is the same. A body goes into a jar along with a filler such as alfalfa, sawdust, or wood shavings. Add water, air, and heat, and after about 30 days, the body will turn to dirt, with the exception of bones and teeth, which require grinding. A machine filters out inorganic material such as metal screws or silicone implants. Then the compost rests for another 30 days before the process is completed.
Return Home will be the third facility to turn people into fertilizer, and by far the largest. Herland Forest, a natural graveyard and nonprofit research branch near the Columbia River Gorge, only has one ship to date. Seattle-based Recompose can process 10 bodies per month.
Now legal human composting begins in Washington
“We think if we have to scale we can make it price competitive,” said Truman. “Otherwise it will be expensive if you make very few of them.”
Return Home charges a terraming fee of $ 4,950, which they consider an affordable price. Funeral plans alone can cost up to $ 5,500 in Washington and don’t include embalming, caskets, and other services.
Getting everything ready by the scheduled opening date on April 1st is quite an undertaking. The crews are transforming an 11,500-square-foot warehouse into an all-in-one funeral experience. One section will house the ships during the reduction process, but Truman provides for a large open space in the center of the building and an attic above it that will be used for ceremonies.
The staff would put the body in the jar and the family could fill the rest of the room with flowers or other organic matter.
“So now we can have a very human process that we have been doing for thousands of years,” Truman explained. “We stand next to our loved one, say goodbye to them and cover them with organic material that we choose ourselves.”
Micah Truman, left, stands in the Return Home warehouse in Auburn. Walt Patrick, right, is pictured in the Herland Forest in Klickitat County. The vessels they stand by look different, but fulfill the same function: reducing a human body to earth.
To make it in the funeral industry, you have to have a good heart, said Katey Houston, undertaker and embalmer for Weeks’ Funeral Homes. She believes Truman did, even though he has seen comparatively few bodies in his life.
“It’ll open his eyes,” said Houston. “He came in from an outsider’s perspective.”
Potential clients have asked Houston about Terramation, but until now there has not been the ability to make it viable.
Now customers will have a separate contract with Return Home and the funeral home will transport the deceased to the facility just like a traditional cemetery. Houston sees this as “just one more end option,” with funeral homes asking if customers want funerals, flame burns, water burns, or composting.
Both she and Truman believe the demand is there, and not just from the people one might expect.
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“I find it crosses all political spectra, I find it crosses all religions,” said Truman.
“Yes, there is the hippie group of recyclers who want that, but there is also a group of old-school farmers that I think will be interested in, too,” Houston said, noting that a lot of ranchers their animals are already composting when they die and consider it a natural process. “It’s a way for them to get back on their own soil … they fertilize everything.”
While farmers may want all of the cubic feet – roughly 500 pounds – of soil, not everyone else will have this capacity. Return Home and its industry peers enable families to take as much as they want and donate the rest to environmental remediation projects.
The legalization of human composting marked a seismic shift in an industry that has been highly regulated and stagnant for decades.
“This is one thing that we’ve done badly as an industry,” Houston said. “When cremation became a thing, we ignored it.”
Cremation accounts for a staggering 80% of dispositions in Washington, according to the National Funeral Directors Association forecast data for 2020.
“Especially with my generation of funeral directors at this point we need to be in reign and be ready to be transparent and open to new ideas for the families we serve,” Houston said. “We cannot go on with the old way of thinking, otherwise we will become irrelevant.”
In Houston, composting will make up 15-20% of their business over the next five years.
Oregon could become the second state to allow human composting
However, some other states are ready to allow the practice as well. Around a hundred people gave testimony to Oregon’s bill earlier this month. Similar calculations are being considered in Colorado and California.
“If California ratifies it will be bananas,” Truman said. In 2019, the Golden State had the fifth largest economy in the world.
Although many people wrinkle their noses when they first learn about Terramation, Truman said that most – including his own family members – adjust to it at some point.
“What we have here is a way for people to say goodbye to their loved one in a way that just feels good,” he said.
Terramation ships sit outside the Return Home in Auburn, Washington, waiting to be installed. The facility is scheduled to open on April 1, 2021 (KOIN).