In Herland Forest, a Washington State cemetery and research cooperative, steward Walt Patrick and his permaculture team compost the remains of deceased sheep and goats that have lived in the forest for the past three decades. In December they composted another large mammal in Herland’s natural grave forest on the slope of the mountain. Adams: a homo sapiens.

Human composting – also known as natural organic reduction (NOR) – has emerged as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation methods, which are typically environmentally harmful and expensive. During the NOR process, the remains of a corpse – similar to your banana peels and coffee grounds – are broken down in a cylinder alongside organic materials such as wood chips and straw. This means that your loved one can become soil for your garden within a few months. In May 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize NOR.

Despite its enthusiastic acceptance by the green funeral community, human composting has sparked some of the controversy. The Catholic Church, for example, condemned NOR as disrespectful and instead encouraged its members to opt for a traditional burial – reflecting the church’s initial stance towards cremation (which it recently found acceptable).

For some families, the concept actually causes shock and confusion, says Elizabeth Fournier, a natural burial attorney and owner and undertaker of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon. Fournier, who traveled to Herland Forest last month to help with his first NOR procedure, says that with relatively novel processes, it is up to the funeral home to set the step-by-step details.

“Some people think, ‘Oh my god, you’re composting Grandma. What does that mean? ‘”Says Fournier. “We really want to say, ‘Look how easy it is.'”

This is how NOR works: Over a period of several days or weeks (Patrick says they are still experimenting with the time factor in Herland) a cylinder containing the corpse is rotated regularly to disperse the oxygen in it and to aid the decomposition process. Herland Forest also mixes in a mixture of fungi, protozoa, and bacteria to speed up the breakdown of debris. It’s important to keep the inside of the cylinder between 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the optimal temperature range for safe and efficient composting, regardless of whether it is melon peel or human bodies. In the Herland Forest, solar panels keep the remains warm, and occasional infusions of oxygen feed the organisms that chew inside.

Herland Forest’s caretaker, Walt Patrick, scoops wood chips to add to the natural organic reduction (NOR) vessel, where the human remains gradually decompose with the help of fungi, protozoa and bacteria. | Photo by Sofia Fournier Potts

Specific NOR techniques vary by facility. In Washington’s growing NOR market, Herland Forest and Recompose, a Seattle area composting company, offer two different options for the curious compost. While the Herland Forest nonprofit’s NOR process is labor-based and entirely operated outdoors amid its trees, Recompose operates in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse that opened last month (downsized due to COVID-19-induced economic problems). on an original plan of 18,500 square feet) where composting bins are constantly monitored by proprietary technology. On December 20, both Herland Forest and Recompose were preparing their first remains for the NOR process at their respective locations (Patrick says the timing there is purely coincidental).

The redesign emerged from the project by Urban Designer / Entrepreneur / Death Carer Katrina Spade from 2014, the Urban Death Project, which envisaged a “hybrid public park, a funeral home and a memorial room” in city districts.

Spade’s composting model aimed to disrupt the US $ 20 billion funeral industry, which has significant environmental and tax costs: Take a cremation that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere. Embalming requires more than 800,000 gallons of toxic fluid annually. Families typically pay between $ 8,000 and $ 10,000 to pay for funerals. However, NOR costs between $ 2,500 and $ 5,500. In addition to its comparatively low price, NOR is far less resource intensive than other internment options.

To formulate her NOR method, Spade worked with a team at Washington State University who are analyzing and developing methods based on farmers’ wisdom about composting animals. Patrick, a trained chemist, came across a similar process through his own experience of decomposing farm animals that once provided milk and fertilized soil in the Herland Forest.

But as Patrick recently learned, composting human remains presents a unique dilemma: unlike living things, people can come with mercury-emitting fillings and artificial joints. “Large mammal composting is nothing new, and it has evolved completely as technology has advanced,” says Patrick. “The challenge has to do with it. . . all the hardware that people have. ”

The composting of human remains presents a unique dilemma: unlike living things, people can come with mercury-emitting dental fillings and artificial joints.

In 2018, Recompose sponsored a Washington State University research project that examined six human composting topics. The study was never published, yet the company claims that the resulting soil contained acceptable levels of potentially hazardous materials such as metals, arsenic and pharmaceuticals. While the composting process itself removes most of the toxins, Recompose removes “non-organic matter” such as hip prostheses from the compost by hand sorting.

Patrick, who also filters leftovers in the Herland Forest, compares the process to winemaking: After the initial decomposition in the cylinder, the human compost passes through a sieve to remove inorganic materials for the final “aging phase” in an open 55-. Gallon drum. Patrick says he’s proceeding cautiously and can’t yet give an exact timeframe for the entire composting cycle because, unlike Recompose, he wasn’t able to experiment with human remains before NOR legalized. (Herland Forest attempted to test the process on roadkill deer – but the state did not allow them.)

Elizabeth Fournier, a natural funeral attorney and owner and undertaker of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon, helped with the cemetery’s first human composting process (NOR requires a licensed funeral director to transport the body). | Photo by Sofia Fournier Potts

Bones are also a challenge. Like the bones of goats and sheep, the human skeleton will not quickly disintegrate into the ground. Compompose employees “mix” the material throughout the process to soften bones and teeth, they told Sierra, but were unable to elaborate on their patented system. In the Herland Forest, the bones in the high temperature cylinder deteriorate. Remaining skeletal structures can be picked out and crushed by hand.

Patrick’s ultimate goal is to place the remains under a flowering tree surrounded by 20 acres of cascading wilderness – a place Herland Forest also conducts caseless burials. Visitors can even plant flowers on the grave and pick a few when they drop by. Recompose customers can also find a home in nature by donating their remaining soil to the Bells Mountain Conservation Forest in south Washington, about a three-hour drive from the company’s Kent warehouse.

Urban NOR centers like Recompose may come in handy for urban dwellers who live hours away from quiet forests, but shuttling supplies and leftovers back and forth could detract from the overall sustainability factor. “The whole concept of bringing the forest into the city, producing compost and then bringing the compost back into the forest seems really difficult to understand,” says Patrick.

As more states seek to legalize human composting – bills in California, Colorado, and New York are struggling due to COVID-19-related budget constraints as well as religious objections – Patrick recommends vendors distance the interval between NOR operations and the final one To minimize the rest of the people. “You can plant the soil in your own garden regardless of the state because [at that point] It is no longer seen as a human form, ”emphasizes Fournier.

Now the country is about to watch Washington State work out the kinks in the latest green burial approach. According to Patrick, interest in Herland Forest’s NOR service is growing gradually, but of course the business will depend on when potential customers die. The recipient of Herland Forest’s first NOR investment was a former forest mycologist whose family believed the method was best for him, says Patrick. Recompose has already started working with nine facilities (many of which were also nature lovers) in its 10-ship facility and is offering a prepayment program for future proceedings. So far, more than 400 people have registered, the company announced in an email.

Fournier anticipates the NOR industry will grow as more and more baby boomers arrange their funeral options – a trend that coincides with the growth of the sustainable funeral industry. It is now up to lawmakers to meet rising demand and remove barriers that hinder greener and cheaper funerals such as funerals. B. Mandates for large endowment funds. And some states force families to embalm or chill bodies within 24 hours of death, which could put families under pressure out of an environmentally friendly arrangement.

“Let’s allow families to make all kinds of decisions and do what they need to do because death is so hard,” says Fournier. “As a undertaker, it’s great when I can help someone find peace with the method that works best for them, whatever it is.”

Walt Patrick (who is alive!) Lies in the human composting cylinder to demonstrate its size – it can accommodate people up to 6’6 “. | Photo by Sofia Fournier Potts