Someday, Sonia Baker hopes her body will nourish a tree. She’s already picked one out — a big, old Gravenstein apple tree at her granddaughter’s place on Beacon Hill. “That kind of tree makes the best apple pies,” Baker said. “At least my family thinks so.”
Baker, 84, lives in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood and is an enthusiastic supporter of Recompose, an emerging death-care alternative to traditional cremation and burial. Instead of going up in flames or into a graveyard, Baker wants her body taken to a future Recompose facility, placed in a bed of plant matter (mostly wood chips and straw) and, in a process taking roughly 30 days, decomposed into dark, nutrient-rich soil.
“The kids tease me about it. But that’s such a better way to say goodbye than shooting a bunch of carbon into the atmosphere,” said Baker, who founded the climate change-focused Edwards Mother Earth Foundation.
Today, Recompose is still just a concept. But over the past year, with scientific testing using donated bodies at Washington State University, a peer-reviewed scientific paper about those results underway, plus legislative support in Olympia, it’s approaching reality. Recompose founder Katrina Spade says the first-ever facility could open in Seattle as soon as 2020.
Spade grew up on a New England farm. Her dad was a doctor; her mom was a physician assistant and environmental activist. In their household, the cycle of birth and death was an acknowledged, everyday fact. Recompose, founded in 2014 under the name Urban Death Project, started as just a strange, daunting idea. Could Spade engineer a way that allowed people, especially people in cities, to bypass the expense and toxicity of the traditional funeral industry (with its embalming fluids, varnished caskets and carbon-heavy cremation) and let their bodies naturally decompose — perhaps in one building like a funeral home/crematorium, where bodies become soil instead of ashes?
The basic questions were obvious: Is it safe? Is it legal? Could people get over the “ick factor” of the idea?
This year, she’s found answers: Yes. Probably soon (with a little help from state Sen. Jamie Pedersen). Yes.
First, the science: This summer, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science at WSU, led a research trial with six human bodies — all Recompose supporters who’d donated their remains for the research. Carpenter-Boggs has studied livestock composting (increasingly popular among farmers) for over a decade. After Spade cold-called her with questions about the scientific viability of Recompose, Carpenter-Boggs wondered whether the process would work with human remains. (She also joined the Recompose board as an unpaid science adviser.)
Would the results be safe and clean?
“It was beautiful, compost-like material I would have been happy to take home and use in the gardens,” Carpenter-Boggs said. (Because the results came from research involving human remains, the university required incineration of the material.)
That material, she explained, passed — and sometimes exceeded — state and federal safety requirements for pathogens and metals that could be dangerous to humans and nearby plants. The key to its success: thermophilic microorganisms (“thermophilic” means “heat-loving”) that quickly raised the temperature of the process, efficiently decomposing the body in its bed of carefully calibrated plant matter.
“I was very happy we met all the safety requirements we were looking for in terms of high temperature, low bacteria, low metals content, low odor,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “The material itself was just very pleasant.”
Second, the politics: Currently, Washington law only allows two means of disposition for human remains: traditional cremation and burial. But Sen. Pedersen is sponsoring an attempt to rewrite state code to allow for recomposition, as well as alkaline hydrolysis. (Alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes described as “water cremation,” doesn’t involve flame — instead, it uses pressure, water and potassium hydroxide to dissolve human tissue, leaving dust similar to cremated remains. It is already legal in several states, including California, Utah and Minnesota.) The proposed bill combs through existing disposition law and introduces the new term “recomposition”: “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”
Current state law, Pedersen said, “reflects concerns as old as organized civilization about spreading dangerous pathogens. Now that the testing has happened at WSU, we’re in a good position to say it’s safe, effective and environmentally friendly.” And, he added, people might want the option.
“Frankly, in this corner of the country, we’re among the least churched but most environmentally friendly,” Pedersen said. “The idea that your loved one could become soil that would be the basis for planting a lovely rhododendron or oak tree or whatever you want could be really popular.”
So far, half a dozen Republicans and Democrats have co-signed the bill.
Third, the “ick factor”: Has the idea raised eyebrows among Pedersen’s colleagues? He laughed softly. “I don’t think this is any yuckier than the simple question of: ‘I’m going to die, so what happens now?’ ” he said. “But some people just don’t want to think about it. The easiest way to get them through it is to say: ‘Hey, if you don’t want to deal with this again, let’s just get the bill passed. Then you won’t have to think about it next session.’ ”
Baker has a similar response to neighbors and friends who might feel unsettled about her wish to nourish the apple tree after her death. “You know, don’t you, that the plan was that when you were born you’d have to die?” she said. “Saying ‘goodbye’ can be handled all kinds of ways. And the fact of the matter is, bodies decompose.”
Baker said the idea of her body going directly to soil, without coffin or cremation, is “pretty practical.” Plus, she said, her kids have come to embrace the idea. Someday, they plan to go to Recompose, pick up her remains and spread them around the old apple tree — if everything goes as planned.
She paused for a moment to shuffle through her files and found, then read, a favorite quote from Willa Cather’s novel “My Ántonia”: “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire … that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
Baker had clipped out that paragraph and put it in her folder marked “affairs in order.”
“Now that we’re talking about it,” she added, “I might write on it: ‘Hint, hint!’”
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