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Compost Me: The origin story

Updated: Feb 15


In the fall of 2022, I was co-teaching Innovation for Changemakers, a Grand Challenge course at the University of Minnesota, when I first said it… “compost me!” 


In this course we ask students to identify and share their moment of obligation - defined as a profound experience that compels changemakers to act. The irony that I would stumble upon my own moment of obligation while facilitating on the very topic was laughable, for sure. 


Midway through the course, my co-instructor suggested a reading outlining the journey of a changemaker she connected to during her time at Echoing Green. To be a field of poppies: the elegant science of turning cadavers into compost outlines the story of Katrina Spade, founder of the Recompose and the leader of the Natural Organic Reduction or “human composting” movement. 


I read it and I said it… “compost me!” 


 

“And so I approach the dark wood of the middle of my life intrigued to encounter human composting, a method of final disposition with no apparent downside, a method purported to prevent a metric ton of carbon dioxide per body from entering the atmosphere, and to produce soil capable of fertilizing trees and flowers. Whether these benefits withstand the stress of extended consideration remains to be seen. But to leave behind a net-positive legacy, to grow something beautiful in death, would be a dream.


 


While her story and the stories of those beginning to line up for her services were moving, it was not the article alone that compelled me to act. I had recently lost my mother-in-law; the first time the burden of navigating the death of a loved one landed more squarely on the shoulders of my wife and I, among others. My wife was also at the tail end of treatment and surgery in response to the same cancer that ended Mom’s days earlier than expected.


Death was present and now, more than ever, I had begun to think of my own. For some odd reason, I found great comfort in the concept of being composted. 


What is Human Composting?

Human composting, also known as Natural Organic Reduction, is the safe and peaceful transformation of human remains into nutrient rich compost. This compost, like cremated remains, can be received by the family or loved one(s) and used at their discretion - distributed amongst family members, buried or scattered in a meaningful location, or planted in a private garden. Different from cremated remains, this nutrient dense material provides the potential to literally bring new life from death. 


Wow… like, WOW! Literally bringing new life through death. 


As I was processing this concept, I imagined my second son, who never had the chance to meet his grandmother, playing in grandpa’s back yard. A place I will forever remember my mother-in-law, hands dirty, on a hot summer day, tending to her beautiful garden.


Imagine if in her final step, she could have actively contributed to the continued growth of her garden, changing and responding to the seasons, nurturing, growing, and blossoming alongside her grandchildren. 


While it was this narrative that sparked my personal interest, a rich variety of use cases have arisen. Customers at Katrina Spade’s Recompose have used the “soil to create groves of trees, nourish rose gardens… or (be) scattered in a favorite natural area.” Recompose, among other Washington state providers, has also partnered with land conservation and restoration efforts to donate soil to help “protect ecosystems, nourish habitats, and support the revitalization of wetlands, riparian habitats, local plants, and vulnerable wildlife species.” 


These examples just scratch the surface of the potential environmental impacts of human composting - a topic I’ll dive deeper into on a later post. 


So… how does it work?

Human composting gently transforms the body into nutrient rich soil over the course of 4-6 weeks. While approaches vary slightly among current providers, the process typically takes place in 5 key phases: 


  • Transportation: After someone passes, the body is transported to a provider’s facility. It is important to note that while you cannot embalm if you intend to use natural organic reduction, opportunities to view and care for the dead remain possible. We will learn more about these facilities later. 

  • The Laying In: The body is gently placed into a vessel and surrounded by organic material - wood chips, straw, wild flowers, plant material, etc. 

  • The Process: The body remains in the vessel for roughly 40-50 days. During this time, the natural microbial process activates change at the molecular level breaking down the remains into basic elements. Heat generated from this process kills viruses, bacteria, and pathogens. 

  • The Compost: The end product is screened for non-organics (think hip replacements or stents), cures for a few more weeks, and is ready to be used in your backyard garden or donated for broader conservation efforts.

  • New Life through Death: The nutrient rich material goes on to support a flourishing garden, restore natural habitats, sequester carbon, and bring new life! 


The process has been vetted for safety and effectiveness (check out this summary of Recompose’s research pilot study), is currently being offered in Washington and Colorado, and built on a rich history of leveraging composting as a safe means for livestock mortality disposition - even here in Minnesota


What’s next?! 

We’re bringing this process to Minnesota, that’s what! Follow me on this journey as we work to legalize and realize natural organic reduction in our great state. This blog will document my work and learnings and, hopefully, create some great opportunities for you to get involved along the way. Let’s go!


 

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