By Mindy Keskinen
Some new, more eco-friendly practices have been added to the death care options available in the United States in recent years — variations on the time-honored ways our bodies can return to the earth.
Today, cremation is the most common preference, but that process has a big carbon footprint. However, a flameless version, known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis, is gaining in popularity, and it’s now available locally.
Other options have broadened, too. At least five Twin Cities cemeteries offer natural burial: instead of embalming and encasing in a casket and vault, the body is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable vessel, a common practice for most of human history. Natural decomposition enriches the soil over time, rather than damaging it with chemicals and concrete.
A solution for cities
But populations have grown, and cemetery space is finite. “Natural burial is not a solution for urban settings,” said Katrina Spade in a talk hosted in January in Minneapolis, part of the Great Northern Festival’s Climate Solutions series.
A decade ago, that realization led Spade to her life’s work: forming a team to develop and offer a funerary process that allows the human body to return to soil without occupying land.
In 2014 Spade launched a nonprofit in her home city of Seattle and started collaborating with soil scientists, engineers and legal professionals. Three years later she founded the public-benefit corporation Recompose, having developed a system that safely and gently composts the human body before its return to the earth. The process is called natural organic reduction (NOR), and in 2019 Washington State became the first to legalize it.
With Spade serving as CEO, Recompose opened its doors in Seattle the next year. Several other new companies have followed suit in Washington.
How it works
The Recompose facility has a welcoming area where people can gather after the death of a loved one and hold a ceremony if they wish. Here the shrouded body is placed in an open “cradle,” surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa and straw in a specific ratio. Loved ones can add flowers, other plant matter or even leaves of paper as part of their farewell. Then the cradle is slid into a cylindrical vessel inside a hexagonal chamber, closed and moved to the facility’s Greenhouse area.
Over the next four weeks, naturally occurring microbes and bacteria transform the body into soil, while trained staff adjust moisture and aeration as needed. The decomposition process generates heat, which ultimately eliminates any pathogens.
The resulting soil — the product of the body and the plant material — is screened for nonbiodegradables such as fillings and implants, then cured for another two to five weeks. At the end of the process, loved ones have the option of keeping the soil, which is nutrient-rich and safe for use at home, or they can donate it to a forest preserve that partners with Recompose.
A cultural shift, and a legal one
Recompose has tapped into a need in the marketplace and in the culture.
“There’s such an interest in re-looking at the end of life,” Spade said at her talk in January. “As the baby boomer generation is aging and seeing their parents die, they’re asking, ’Wait, is that the best we could do with the end of life … all the way through the care of our bodies after we die?’”
Not to mention the environmental benefit: The carbon footprint for NOR is about one-eighth that of either conventional burial or flame cremation, Spade said.
Since Washington legalized NOR, five other states have followed suit: Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, California and New York. Several more states, including Minnesota, will consider it in their current legislative sessions.
Key backers here in Minnesota are Rep. John Huot of Rosemount (District 56B) and Sen. John Marty of Roseville (District 40). Last year a similar bill didn’t make it out of committee. But former state Sen. Carolyn Laine, who attended Spade’s talk, noted that “now that we have a more progressive House, Senate and governor, maybe this is the year.”
Here in St. Anthony Park, a Going Home Green group has formed under the Transition Town umbrella to serve as a community resource on these topics. For info on end-of-life options and the status of Minnesota’s NOR bill, visit TransitionASAP.org/going-home-green. To learn more about Recompose, visit Recompose.life.
Mindy Keskinen is a freelance editor and writer who lives in St. Anthony Park. She coordinates communications for Transition Town – ASAP. Reach her at Communications@TransitionASAP.org.