Returning the human body to the earth without flames or chemicals.
Such has been a long desired alternative to pumping formaldehyde into a loved one, encasing them in a concrete vault reinforced with rebar and burying them in a six foot deep hole.
Or to reducing one’s once-larger-than-life mama or papa, sister, brother or dear friend to a handful of grey ashes.
At last, technology, time and the law have aligned to allow what some once might have considered a fantasy of aging hippies to become reality, poised to reform and rock the death care industry.
As soon as April or mid-May 2021, Return Home, the first, large-scale “terramation” — human composting — facility ever built in the world, opens in an 11,500-square-foot warehouse on Auburn’s north end, with 72 vessels that can transform 72 bodies per month into soil at 30 times the rate of ground burial.
To bring “sustainable disposition to the mainstream,” said Return Home’s CEO and founder, Micah Truman.
At the outset, Return Home’s approach is no different than traditional burial or cremation. When someone has died, it’s usually family or friends who reach out, and people are highly directed in what they want to do. For example, last week, Return Home got a call from people in Los Angeles who were unwilling to use a crematorium and had already heard about Return Home.
“We can either work with funeral homes, or we can take the body and work directly with the family,” said Truman. “We deal with transportation, both to here and back with the soil. It’s completely turn-key, so the family has nothing to worry about. And we have the facility internally, and the technology, which is entirely unique, to completely transform a body into soil, at incredible rates of speed.”
How it works
The process uses a vessel, or pod — 8 feet long by 3.5 feet by 3.5 feet — into which workers first place the all-0rganic bulking material of alfalfa, straw and sawdust. When they have placed the body inside, they close the pod.
The pod includes proprietary machinery and technology that Return Home will not allow the public to see.
What happens next is analogous with composting. In this case, the mix and the body reach a temperature just south of 140 degrees, which is almost cooking heat. The process is aerobic, meaning oxygen flows continuously in and out of the vessel. It takes the microbes in the body and puts them on hyper-drive, making them work incredibly fast. Typically, it takes many years to get that done, leaving behind soil.
“It’s what nature meant us to do. We just do it faster,” Truman said.
Carefully-trained technicians monitor the process. An air-filtration system informally called “The Octopus,” which is attached to all 72 pods, carries the odors to a machine where they are treated.
Within a month, the body is gone, leaving only the bones, which workers reduce and then return to the soil in the pod.
After one more month — two months in total — the remains are given to the family.
“This is what we give the family,” Truman said, nodding to a bowl brimming with what had once been a dead pig, but was now a fine, dark brown, odorless compost, which slips with ease from the hands and through the fingers. “This is something you can plant in your rose garden, Uncle George no less.”
People, Truman noted, have a legal right to use that compost in whatever way they want, just as they are allowed to do with cremated remains.
“We have been working on this for 26 months now, and our facility is just getting up. The science was a heckuva lot of work. Then, after we did the science, we had to build the technology, and every machine was individually-designed and custom-produced. That was its own thing. Then we had to find a facility, and the facility had to be zoned as a crematorium, of a certain size, at a certain place, and that was its own adventure.
“We had to design this air filtration system we call Octopus, and Octopus was its own animal, pun fully intended. It’s a very specific design that we did and unique to our industry. So, basically, all the things that we’ve created have taken a great deal of time and expertise to complete, but I think we’re there, we’re ready to go,” Truman said.
Public is ready
On average in the United States, funeral services and all things associated cost a grieving family about $6,000, though there is no limit on the price of caskets. Return Home offers its services plus transportation for $5,000.
“So, we are very moderately priced, and we ensure that your last act on this planet is to give back to it, and not pollute it,” Truman said.
Truman said he is confident “the mainstream” is ready to embrace the idea of turning a body into compost that can be returned to the earth without polluting it.
Indeed, the first human composting company, Recompost, opened weeks ago in downtown Kent, though at a much smaller scale, with 10 vessels, and another facility in the southern part of the state is already open with two vessels. Both facilities are already at capacity.
Of course, Truman is aware that some people will be queasy at first about this notion of planting one’s beloved in the backyard garden.
“I think we always state that we’re uncomfortable with Uncle George going to feed the roses, but Uncle George is going to feed the roses, no matter what,” Truman said. “It’s a little bit of a misnomer to assume that we’re doing something different than the world has always done. So, as I look at weird, I can see our way as fairly sensible, and the other ones as a little more of a twist. It’s not a matter of our disposition method because ours is the most benign of the bunch.
“I think what concerns us most isn’t our final disposition. I think what concerns us most is that in order to talk about this, we have to talk about dying. And we don’t like to talk about dying. It involves even our own mortality, and, more difficult, the mortality of the people we love,” Truman said.
The reaction from faith communities has been mostly positive to date, Truman said.
“Well, there are always going to be certain objections,” Truman said. “The Catholic Church objected to cremation for a long time, but I think they’ve come around. I was just talking on our webinar with a group of rabbis two weeks ago, and they were incredibly interested. They were saying, ‘You know. Jewish burial tradition is just that: it’s tradition; it’s not scripture. What Scripture says is we’re supposed to give back to the earth. That’s our obligation.’ So I was really blown away by the Jewish community I was listening to. In fact, three rabbis are coming here to tour our facility right after Passover. There is a spectrum, but I don’t actually see huge resistance from a great deal of it, no more than with any other effort that I would see.”
Before any of this could happen, Truman noted, the Washington state Legislature had to approve SB 5001, which legalized terramation starting in 2020.
“This is unprecedented,” said Truman. “Iceland, Norway, no one has it. This is the first place in the world to do it. And for some crazy reason, Kent, and Auburn where I am, are at the epicenter of this industry. So suddenly, we have this particular region that the whole world is going to be looking at, and that’s kind of crackers. SB 5001 literally changes how we do death care in America. We have cremation, we have burial, and now we have been given a third option.”