Back to Our Roots: The Rise of Human Composting as a Burial Choice
More Americans are turning to human composting to avoid the environmental pitfalls of mainstream deathcare.
By Britany Robinson
Frederick “Fritz” Weresch planned on becoming a math teacher or a famous actor. He was empathetic and diplomatic, known to gently encourage the shy students to speak up in class. The high school senior loved music, learned the piano as a child, and had recently taught himself to play guitar.
He also, according to his friends, had talked about wanting to be composted after he died. His parents, Eileen and Wes Weresch, wanted this for themselves, too. They just never imagined they’d be carrying out Fritz’s wishes before their own.
Fritz, 18, was found unconscious on November 30, 2022. He died six days later from unknown but natural causes, according to his family,
His parents are still wading through the thick of mourning. “Grief brain” is making it hard to remember certain details about the months since Fritz’s death, Eileen said. But one thing she and her husband feel good and confident about was their decision to have Fritz’s body undergo human composting, also known as natural organic reduction or “terramation.”
Human composting is the process of turning human remains into nutrient-rich soil. It’s an option that avoids the environmental pitfalls of more mainstream practices: cremation releases carbon dioxide and air pollutants, and casket burial typically involves hazardous embalming chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials.
It’s a practice that some say could shift the United States’ $20 billion deathcare industry. More than 52% of Americans are interested in “green burial,” according to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors’ Association (NFDA).
Six states have legalized human composting in the last four years. Washington state, where the Wereschs live, was the first, legalizing the process in 2019.
“There’s this romanticism to it,” said Haley Morris, a spokesperson with Earth Funeral, a human composting facility in Auburn, Washington. “So many people want to turn into a tree.” But at the root of this romantic idea is something that’s increasingly possible, Morris explains: “For your final act to do good for the Earth.”
When Fritz died, Eileen and Wes approached Return Home, a Seattle-based company, to care for his remains and host a laying-in ceremony. His body was placed in a large, white, reusable vessel on a bed of organic materials—straw, alfalfa, and wood chips. Loved ones added flowers and notes to the mix. Fritz’s best friend cut off his long, curly black hair to lay with Fritz, prompting other attendees to leave locks of their hair as well.
“We got to be there and be part of the process,” Eileen said. “Our culture has made dead bodies icky or scary and that’s not the case.” She said something doesn’t feel right about seeing an embalmed body. “But [Fritz’s] body felt so right. You could hold his hand, and it felt like holding his hand.”
With Eileen’s permission, Return Home captured and shared a video of the ceremony to Tik Tok, where it has more than 600,000 followers.
“The first and most important thing we need to do is win over hearts and minds,” said Micah Truman, the founder of Return Home. He said one way to do that has been to normalize and provide explanations on human composting via social media.
Human composting, or as Return Home calls it “terramation,” is typically an eight to 12-week process, depending on the provider. Once a body has arrived at a human composting facility, they’re placed in a reusable vessel. Some providers, like Return Home, offer funeral services or a “laying-in” ceremony, after which the vessel is sealed and naturally occurring microbes begin to decompose the body. Rotating the vessel along with careful control of temperature and moisture levels also help the process along. Details vary across providers, including how bones are dealt with. At Return Home, they’re removed after one month, reduced to tiny shards, and returned to the vessel to continue decomposing.
The resulting soil, about one cubic yard, can be used to plant trees, spread in gardens, or saved however the family sees fit. Some families opt to donate soil to a nature preserve or land restoration project, Morris said, adding that Earth Funeral owns five acres on the Olympic Peninsula where they send donated soil.
Until recently, most Americans were buried in caskets. Casket burial typically involves embalming the body with chemicals, including formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and glycerin. Every year in the U.S. 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde go into the ground with embalmed bodies, according to the Green Burial Project. Formaldehyde is listed as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and according to a study by the National Cancer Institute, morticians have a significantly higher rate of myeloid leukemia.
In addition to toxic chemicals, casket burial uses an abundance of materials—concrete, wood, steel—for a single purpose, which are then left in the ground. Land usage is another concern. Cemeteries use up land that might otherwise offer natural habitat to wild animals or housing for humans, covering those acres with monoculture lawns treated with petrochemicals. The space to do this, especially near population-dense cities, is becoming scarce. A traditional funeral with a casket burial is also expensive. The median cost in 2021 was $7,848, according to NFDA.
Today, slightly more Americans opt for cremation, a cheaper and less land-intensive option than burial, but one with its own problems. The impact of burning corpses on air quality made headlines in 2020 when Los Angeles county was forced to suspend limits on the number of cremations due to a backlog of bodies from the coronavirus pandemic. Those limits exist because cremation releases air pollutants, including particulate matter. Most of these are filtered out by post-treatment systems, but cremation still emits about 573 pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of a 500-mile car journey—per corpse.
From a financial perspective, human composting typically costs less than casket burial and more than cremation. Return Home’s standard pricing is $4,950.
Eileen Weresch first heard about human composting on an NPR segment back in 2019. She researched the process and, that night, brought it up over chicken fajitas with her family.
“I was fascinated,” said Eileen. “We talked about how it’s carbon capturing instead of carbon emitting; how it’s going back to our roots.” And so it was decided: Eileen and Wes wished to undergo human composting when they died. Eileen recalled that Fritz, “was super into it, too.”
Fritz was an organ donor. While Wes and Eileen held vigil during their son’s final days on life support, they heard from several of Fritz’s friends. They wanted Fritz’s parents to know he had told them he wanted his body to be composted when he died. Those friends, along with hundreds of classmates and loved ones, lined the halls of the hospital for Fritz’s “honor walk,” when Fritz was wheeled to the operating room where his organs were prepared for donation.
“I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves,” Eileen told those who had gathered to say goodbye. After Fritz died, his body was transported to Return Home.
Truman, the founder of Return Home, was an investor when he first heard about human composting. He’d been looking for a new focus in life. “I’d come to the conclusion that infinite growth in a finite world is madness,” he says. He wanted to build a company where “the bigger it gets, the better the world gets.”
After first hearing about human composting, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, it struck him as odd. But the more he talked to people who loved the idea of becoming soil after death, the better he understood the appeal. “Love it or hate it,” he says, “this idea will live in your head rent-free. I just had to do it.” He opened Return Home in June of 2021.
Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says they receive calls from all over the world, from people who want to know more about human composting, which is estimated to become a $1 billion industry. Traditional funeral homes in Washington are responding to this demand, many of which have added human composting as a line item, working with providers to transport bodies to their facilities.
Human composting as practiced by startups like Return Home isn’t the only way to lessen the environmental burden of deathcare, said Carlton Basmajian, urban planner and author of Planning for the Deceased. The terramation process is best understood as an alternative to cremation because the body is broken down in a facility and the family is given the remains at the end of the process. He said he sees more promise in so-called “natural” or “green” burials, which entails designating land for the burial of bodies without chemicals or coffins. (Many of these sites, including one that Eileen approached, only allow for burials during warmer months when the soil is soft.)
“[Natural burial] has the potential to allow us to preserve and rehabilitate larger areas of land,” said Basmajian.
Truman said he believes the process at Return Home gives families more time to grieve, compared to the long-standing traditions of the funeral industry. With human composting, families can visit their loved one’s vessel throughout decomposition. They can call and check in on how the process is going. The traditional funeral industry, Truman says, has turned grieving into a 48-hour process, but many find that insufficient. “We hurt, and we do it for a long time.”
In February, more than two months after Fritz died, Eileen received a call notifying her that Fritz’s body had completed its transformation into soil. She and her husband are now making plans to distribute his remains to loved ones and build a memorial garden in his honor.
Originally published by Nexus Media, 04.04.2023, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.