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Californians Eager for Human Composting After They Die

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A person with long hair kneels near some small objects on the ground in a wooded area.
Miranda Mellis tends to an altar she built behind her home where she buried some of her father’s composted remains in Olympia, Washington on Dec. 20, 2023.  (April Dembosky/KQED)

When Dennis Cunningham was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wanted his death to reflect the values he lived by.

A committed civil rights lawyer, he defended the Black Panthers, AIDS protestors, and later, environmental activists from Earth First. In his spare time, he built sculptures out of driftwood, bottle caps, and rusted car parts in his backyard studio in Bernal Heights.

He wanted his body to be part of that same cycle of decay and regeneration. He instructed his kids to have him composted after he died.

“It was totally in keeping with who he was to not make waste, but to use waste,” said Cunningham’s daughter, Miranda Mellis.

To Cunningham, being turned into soil and spread on the forest floor to fertilize new trees was much more appealing than being burned to ash or entombed in a concrete vault underground.

Likewise, a growing number of Americans are eager to see more environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional burial and cremation. Human composting is the latest option, though the number of facilities and states that offer it are scarce.

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“It’s literally illegal to compost a body in the state of California,” said Joe Mellis, Cunningham’s son. “We had to transport his body from California to Washington to do this.”

Seven states have legalized human composting to date, including Washington, Colorado, Nevada and New York. It took California lawmakers three tries to pass a law to do the same, but it won’t take effect until 2027.

A person smiles and holds a pot in their hands in front of a brightly painted building.
Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, in front of the company’s Seattle facility holding a box of soil that was once a human at Recompose Seattle on Oct. 06, 2022, in Seattle, Washington. (Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Recompose)

Cunningham ended up at Recompose, a human composting facility in Seattle. Founder and CEO Katrina Spade said about 15% of their clients are shipped from California and another 14% from other states.

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“We pick them up at Sea-Tac,” she said about the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

Walking into the lobby of Recompose is like walking into a spa. Meditation music whispers from hidden speakers. Living art tapestries decorate the walls; earthy green and yellow shades cover the windows.

“When the light comes through, we hope it reminds you of the forest light,” Spade said as she toured the gathering space where families can hold ceremonies.

The science of human composting

The composting itself happens in a cavernous warehouse in the back that Spade calls the greenhouse. She describes the smell alternately as that of a grassy meadow after a rain and a barnyard. Inside are 34 white hexagonal cylinders, or individual vessels, stacked on top of each other in the shape of a beehive.

When a new body comes in, the staff lay it in one of the vessels on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, Spade said, then they cover it with more of the same.

A pile of hay sits on a bed inside an opening in a wall.
A mannequin covered in wood chips and straw rests inside the Threshold Vessel at Recompose Seattle on Oct. 06, 2022, in Seattle, Washington. (Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Recompose)

“The idea to me of being cocooned in that plant material, it’s very safe feeling,” Spade said. “If you were alive, it would probably be a little itchy.”

Wrapped in that cocoon, the microbes and bacteria go to work on the body, naturally raising the temperature inside the vessel to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Under Washington state regulations, natural heat has to be sustained for three straight days to kill off any pathogens.

“Seven or eight years I’ve been doing this, and still, when I see that temperature spike, I think, ‘Holy mackerel!’” Spade said, channeling her inner 8th-grade science fair nerd. “It just feels like some sort of miracle, even though it is nature.” 

The body stays in the vessel for about 30 to 40 days. Every week or so, the staff rotate it to let air through, and the body transforms and consolidates into a cubic yard of dark brown dirt, enough to fill the bed of a pickup truck. The staff removes any titanium hips or knees left over in the process, then grinds the bones down to sand and mixes them back in with the soil.

The process takes about two months altogether and costs about $7,000 — about twice the cost of cremation but half that of conventional burial. Environmentally, Spade said composting is way better than both, citing internal company research that shows it saves more than a metric ton of carbon compared to the alternatives.

Inspiration and opposition to human composting

During the deadliest period of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people were being cremated in California, and the emissions violated local air district rules.

This is one of the factors that inspired Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, to carry a bill to legalize human composting in California, AB 351. It passed the state legislature in 2022 but won’t take effect until 2027 to give regulatory agencies time to prepare.

A room with a large stretcher-like device in it.
The Recompose Gathering Space is where the laying-in (funeral) ceremony takes place. The body, shrouded in natural cloth, lies on a dark green bed called the cradle. (Courtesy of Recompose)

“The pandemic exacerbated the situation and reminded us of the importance of the choices we make throughout our life cycle,” Garcia told KQED after the bill was signed into law. “It added a sense of urgency of why this needed to be a reality sooner than later here in California.”

Garcia’s effort was the third time lawmakers tried to pass the bill. It was held up mainly due to administrative logjams, as the opposition to human composting was minimal and tepid.

“I find this bill disgusting and I completely oppose it,” said Serea Abdosh, a 19-year-old student and one of a handful of residents who lodged objections at state legislative hearings in the spring of 2022.

The California Catholic Conference also raised concerns about the safety of composted human remains, pointing out that supporters of the bill relied on just one small, non-peer-reviewed study from Recompose to contend that all toxic elements of the body, like dental implants or chemotherapy treatments, were properly eliminated.

The bishops also argued that composting a human body and scattering the remains was undignified. It “risks people treading over human remains without their knowledge,” the Catholic Conference wrote in a statement, “while repeated dispersions in the same area are tantamount to a mass grave.”

Recompose’s Spade countered by saying her company has composted many Catholics.

“We’ve had priests bless the body before,” she said. “We’ve had priests bless the soil after.”

Rabbis have also considered how human composting can comply with Jewish death care rituals, and “some are even creating liturgy, or creating words to say around these kinds of processes,” according to Courtney Applewhite, who studied death and grief during her doctoral research at UC Santa Barbara.

Rituals after composting

Composting certainly affected the grieving process for Joe and Miranda Mellis after their dad died. Most of his soil was spread on the floor of a forest in Southwest Washington. Another portion went under a beloved hemlock tree on his family’s land in Michigan.

Some of the kids kept some compost for themselves. Joe has a box in his home office in Los Angeles. Miranda buried some in the woods behind her house in Olympia. In Washington, human compost can be spread anywhere as long as the landowner says it’s OK. California plans to follow suit.

A vibrant forest scene.
Bells Mountain Forest is a permanently protected natural wilderness. The stewards of Bells Mountain use the soil donated by the Recompose community to revitalize wetlands, riparian habitats, local plants and vulnerable wildlife species. (Courtesy of Recompose)

“This tree is a vine maple,” Miranda said as she dodged a spider web and ducked under the low, thin, mossy branches arching out in all directions, a spot she chose because it feels “parental.”

She kneeled next to a little altar she built over the roots, tending a small bowl of rocks and shells her father collected and a jagged crystal surrounded by a ring of pinecones.

“I meditate here, and sometimes I talk to him here. I think of this as like a telephone booth to the afterworld,” she said. “I can just hear him as if he’s sitting right next to me.”

Having her father here, the sense of his body giving back to the earth, it all somehow mitigated the pain of the loss, she said. It made her less afraid of her own mortality.

“After all of this, I thought, ‘I think I want to do it, too,’” she said.

Both Miranda and Joe say they also want to be composted when they die.

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