The Return Of Human Compost

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Resting In The Peaceful Garden

Let’s talk a little about remains; what’s left over when we move on. Over the years, as members of the Friday Tidy garden volunteers have died, we who remained have talked about the ways in which we each might prefer our bodies to be cared for after death. Most of us lean towards being planted under a tree, or as new green burial options arose, perhaps sitting upright in a body pod with a tree nestled in our lap. We’ve often discussed our personal tree choices; I definitely favor a crabapple, the kind with small berry-like fruit beloved of birds, such as Royal Raindrops or Golden Raindrops.

I also admire the diminutive forms of Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii), such as Sargent Tina and Rosea, both of which top out under 8 feet in height. Sargent crabs usually spread wider as they age, turning into gnarly, knobbly granny trees with abundant spring blossom, plump fruit that persists into fall, and pleasing autumn color. How perfect is that? These little gals fit snugly into small places where larger trees would quickly outgrow their position (one reason I often use them as memorial trees). My new garden (still emerging as ongoing renovation continues) is very small indeed, and a Sargent is a leading candidate for the very limited space available for trees and shrubs. And possibly my own memorial tree?


Perhaps it seems odd to be dwelling on death when spring is in full bloom, skies are blue, and my daughter and I have just moved into our new-to-us home. Partly it’s a time-of-life issue; by now, many family members and friends have moved on past this life, and more are on the runway, preparing for takeoff. The death passage is also on my mind because I’ve been facilitating an ongoing series called Write your Own Obit, encouraging people to take a creative look at their own life stories. While there are established templates for obituaries, many sadly lack the flavor and richness of a full lifetime. True, describing a full life fully could tale a book—or several volumes—yet it’s fascinating to notice how a few truthful, singing statements can bring a dry narrative alive. The usual long list of facts and accomplishments does tell a kind of story, but can’t capture the experiences and dreams that make a person an individual.

Another reason for my rumination is that, at the last obit writing session, I learned that a “new” way of dealing with empty bodies has become possible. Until now, human bodies in Washington had to be embalmed or cremated. Last week, the Washington State Legislature passed SB 5001, legalizing both alkaline hydrolysis (“water cremation”) and human composting. The impetus for this bill came from research done at Washington State University using bodies donated for this purpose by green burial proponents. The research team developed technology has been developed that involves burying a body in a box filled with wood chips and straw. Treated just like any compost, the mixture eventually becomes about a cubic yard of soil that can be used in home gardens. An eco-conscious company called ReCompose hopes to be in the human composting business by 2020.


Well, of course! After all, for millennia, when we humans died, our bodies have been laid to rest in the cradle of the earth. Covered with rock cairns or earthen mounds, tucked into crevices in caves, slid into pits or sealed in tombs, sooner or later our remains returned to the soil. I find embalming repellent and even though preferable, the thought of cremation isn’t exactly soothing. I’m smitten with this return to tradition and the possibility that my saggy old body can contribute nourishment to spring blossoms and summer fruit, autumn color and bare winter branches. I love the idea that my earthly remains become ever more earthy, contributing to the wellbeing of the plants and critters and the planet itself.

How does it work? As the company website says, “By converting human remains into soil, we minimize waste, avoid polluting groundwater with embalming fluid, and prevent the emissions of CO2 from cremation and from the manufacturing of caskets, headstones, and grave liners. By allowing organic processes to transform our bodies and those of our loved ones into a useful soil amendment, we help to strengthen our relationship to the natural cycles while enriching the earth.”


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10 Responses to The Return Of Human Compost

  1. Tamara Mitchell says:

    I’d seen something about this recently and I love the idea. Your text says they want to be up and running by 2010, which is nine years ago, so maybe that is 2020? I looked at their website and didn’t see and actual guesstimate on the time. I hope this is legal in Oregon…or will be soon…but, not too soon! I don’t expect to kick the bucket for quite a while, but it would be wonderful to have this all arranged.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Miss Sharp Eyes! You are quite right; should have said 2020 and I fixed it just now. There is an interview with the founder in the Seattle Times where she said she’s expecting to be open for business by late 2020. Sure hope so, this seems like such a natural, sensible and ecologically benign way to gift the earth.

  2. Diane Hooper says:

    Hi Ann,
    Great column. I have read about this recently and find it very intriguing. I am running a copy of your article to put with my estate papers.
    Also need to get over to the senior center to take in your class on writing your obituary.
    Hope the new home is starting to come together.

  3. Buff (Elizabeth) Hungerland says:

    Hi Ann: When I lived on Bainbridge Island, you once consulted with me on our property on Rose Loop. We have long-since moved on, but I am enjoying your newsletter, pass your vegan recipes along to my granddaughter, and still consult your books that live in my bookshelves here in Australia.

    There is a horticultural writer here named Georgina Reid whose work you might enjoy. She calls herself The Plant Hunter. I’ve attached a link for when you have time for good writing and more plant stuff.

    Cheers from Down Under, Buff Hungerland

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks! In fact, I’ve read some of Georgina’s writing and enjoyed it very much. Fun to think of gardening on the other side of the planet…

  4. Susan McGrath says:

    Big thanks to our Washington State Legislature for passing SB 5001, to legalize water cremation and human composting, and thanks to you, Ann, for sharing the good news!

  5. Janice Noe says:

    I would love to know if you are willing/available to speak to an interested group on this topic or possible one of your others? It would be wonderful if you might speak to our garden club group…quite an honor. Maybe?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks for the lovely invitation but I no longer do much public speaking. I do, however, offer free garden talks at the Bainbridge Island Senior Center on the first Tuesday of each month at 1:30. Bring your group and have a field trip!

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