“Magical” might not be the first word that comes to mind while enumerating the process of human decomposition. And yet, it is the exact word that Capitol Hill designer and entrepreneur Katrina Spade uses — twice — to describe the process of converting human bodies into soil.
“The fact that all we really need is nature is pretty magical to me,” Spade says, her soft timbre nearly drowned out by the clinking of coffee cups and cookie plates at Victrola.
With her company, Recompose, Spade hopes to make human composting in Seattle an alternative to burial and cremation, or at least a reality, by 2020. By then, she hopes to open a human-composting facility in the city. Spade dreams of a large, warehouse-like space where lush plants welcome grieving families. Hexagonal recomposition vessels are stacked high against the walls. Human bodies will recompose in the aerated, heated containers along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw.
Right here’s where the “magic” comes in. What happens next is “almost identical to what happens on the forest floor as dead organic material, leaves, chipmunks, are decomposing and creating topsoil,” she explains. “The difference is that our process works at a higher temperature, which kills more pathogens, and thus accelerated.” After about 30 days, what’s left is what Spade describes as a useable soil that looks, feels, smells and acts exactly like a bag of “fluffy, beautiful” topsoil. “You can put it on a tree right away.” Friends and families will be able to take soil home for gardening or planting. Recompose will also work with local organizations to use the soil in local conservation efforts.
Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, has filed for two patents for the recomposition system. Spade says the process is not only carbon-neutral, but “carbon-beneficial”. For now, the practice is not legal in the US yet.
It could be soon. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen filed a bill to legalize human composting or ‘recomposition’ along with alkaline hydrolysis, a technique called water cremation because of its use of hot, pressurized water and lye to ‘break down’ the body, and already legal in other states. If the legislation passes, Washington would be the first state in the U.S. to allow recomposition.
“Best case scenario is that the legislation passes early this year,” says Spade. “After which we’ll figure out the regulatory framework and open a facility in late 2020.”
💥 Dropped our bill into the hopper today! On our way to legalizing #recomposition AND alkaline hydrolysis here in WA State. Ecological death care for all. @peoplesmemorial @restingwaters @elementalnw 🌱🌿🌳 💥 pic.twitter.com/hZoTHy4kMX
— Katrina Spade (@recomposelife) December 3, 2018
Though she started her venture on the Hill, working from the Cloud Room, her own home and Victrola as makeshift HQ’s, chances are low the facility will also find its place here,
“We need a big space, about 15.000 square foot, with high ceilings and dock doors because we’ll be moving a fair amount of materials such as straw. Ideally, it has some old-bone character, as the facility will also function as a space for memorials or services.”
Spade says a Recompose service, which will include recomposition and a memorial, will cost around $5,500, more than the average cost of cremation (around $3,000) but less than the average for a funeral ($7,181).
And with spaces like Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery — population: 40,000 — filling up, traditional death isn’t getting any cheaper.
The plan has been a long time in the making. Seven years, to be exact. Spade, then an architecture student in Massachusetts, had recently turned 30. “I suddenly realized: Oh my god, I’m going to die someday.”
In that case, what would her a-religious family of doctors do with her body? Cremation, probably. But why should it be the default?
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“I started researching death care and found myself into a rabbit hole,” Spade says. She found out how cremation and burial are both environmentally “fraught” options. Cremation uses fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide, while burial creates waste and has a pretty big carbon footprint because of transport, and production of caskets, headstones.
“Why are both options toxic? The idea of the last choice you ever make being a big screw you to mother earth seems kind of awful.” During her research, she found out about livestock composting farmers had been practicing for decades. Why not apply it to humans? After work with university researchers, a Kickstarter campaign that raised $90,000 and “viral” attention from media all over the world, Spade founded Recompose, a public benefit corporation, in 2017, raising $700,000 from investors. “The more the climate crisis looms, the more people realize that death care is an important piece of the puzzle in terms of solutions.”
Though she moved here for family reasons, it turned out Seattle was the perfect place to start a business about changing the way we deal with dying. “Seattle has a real appreciation for the environment. We’re also bit different maybe, innovative and a little dark. People in Seattle don’t blink an eye when you talk about death.”
Spade will have to talk about death a lot more in the coming year. If and when the law passes, Spade will work on another investment round. She’s fine talking about death all the time, she says. “Overall, it’s given me an appreciation for living. When you’re constantly thinking about the fact that you’ll die someday, you’re really psyched to be alive.”
You can learn more at recompose.life.