Rachel Gerberding has a green thumb. So when her mother died this April, Gerberding decided to compost her. Gerberding, who lives in Washington state in a house surrounded by flowers, had heard about a newly legal method to turn human remains into soil. “I was like, ‘Mom, it would be such a wonderful thing for me — to be able to just walk through [my garden] and be like, ‘Oh, hi, Mom,’” Gerberding, 48, said, recounting their conversation. Sharon Gerberding, who had previously planned on a simple cremation, agreed: “I’m going to be dead,” she told Rachel. “Do whatever you want!”
That’s why Sharon, who died from complications of multiple sclerosis, was laid to rest in an industrial park 30 minutes south of Seattle. On a chilly spring day, her family gathered in a nondescript, hangar-style building tucked between a belt rubber warehouse, recycling facilities, and an air quality testing company. Staff had placed Sharon’s body in a vessel filled with alfalfa, straw, sawdust, and notes written in biodegradable ink. Hymns played over the speaker system, a tribute to Sharon’s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By early summer, all that would be left of their matriarch was a few hundred pounds of rich, dark soil.
This is natural organic reduction — better known as human composting — the first truly new form of final disposition developed in decades. First legalized in Washington state in 2019, the process has proved popular with certain of the Pacific Northwest’s eco-conscious consumers, who are eager to have their last act on earth be a positive one. They know that traditional burials involve literal tons of steel, concrete, and toxic chemicals and that the heat of a cremation retort emits several hundred pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. For families like the Gerberdings, natural organic reduction, or NOR, promises a more gentle way out.
Today, there are four NOR companies in a roughly 150-mile radius of western Washington state, including Return Home, the company in charge of Sharon’s remains. New markets are opening up all the time. NOR is now legal in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont. Boosters hope New York is next. But death industry disruptors face opposition, including from the Catholic Church, which has deemed NOR “more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies.” They aren’t the only ones: plenty of people find the whole process a little creepy.
Despite these challenges, it’s clear a deathcare revolution is underway. New methods of body processing, from NOR to alkaline hydrolysis, are on the rise. So is the home funeral movement, which seeks to return the care of the dead to their families. New companies aim to be cost-competitive; at Return Home, NOR costs about $5,500 with a laying-in ceremony. That’s about twice as much as the average cremation but about half the cost of a traditional funeral and vault burial. But even as new options proliferate, after so many generations of viewing the corpse at a distance, few of us know what we really want to happen when we die — or how to ask for it.
That’s where Return Home comes in. Its staff has worked to demystify the NOR process on the company TikTok, racking up over 5 million likes on videos of cartoon bones and pose-n-stay skeletons. They’ve opened up their facility to families, some of whom visit daily during their loved one’s composting. And they’ve slowed the funeral process down: at Return Home, turning a body into soil takes at least two months — much longer than the few chaotic days most families have to make arrangements, attend a service, and lay a body to rest. While people may think NOR is all “magic” and “Mother Earth,” Return Home founder and CEO Micah Truman says he’s out to prove “it’s just so much cooler than that.”
Composting food dates back thousands of years, but the notion of actively turning human remains into a usable soil product is only a decade old. In 2013, Katrina Spade, an architecture student, proposed the idea in her graduate thesis. “Our bodies have nutrients,” Spade has said. “What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”
In her thesis, Spade envisioned a “dark, quiet, and safe” space where the natural work of decomposition could be scaled for an urban population and managed in an industrial setting. Think: green burial meets vertical farming. After graduation, Spade worked with soil scientists, lobbyists, and investors (to the tune of more than $15 million) to make the case for legalization in Washington state — and get her own NOR company up and running. It worked, and in May 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law.
By early 2021, Spade’s firm, Recompose, was open for business. (Disclosure: my sister-in-law runs the front desk at Recompose’s Seattle facility.) By that point, Spade was hardly the only NOR entrepreneur. In Washington state, funeral consumers can also turn to Return Home, Herland Forest, and Earth.
Truman, the founder of Return Home, wears the usual startup uniform: nondescript pants, a button-up shirt, and a fleece vest. But he speaks in zany constructions unlike anything you’d expect from a finance guy, let alone a de facto funeral home owner: We shouldn’t get “airy fairy” about composting, he says. Bodies are just “squishies and hards.” The process at Return Home is “like a Disney ride, only weirder.”
Truman is often crying — an occupational hazard, he’s learned, in this new line of work.
Initially, the plan for Return Home was something like a ghost kitchen but for human remains. People would ship bodies in, and Truman would send back soil, similar to the way a crematorium returns ashes. That informed the early look of the place — the vessels look like freezer chests in which hunters stock game in their garage. They’re stacked up by the dozen on enormous steel shelves, like bulk pallets of toilet paper in Costco.
To make his vision a reality, Truman teamed up with John Paul of Transform Compost Systems just over the border in Canada. Together, they brought on a manufacturer to construct bespoke machinery for every stage process (and that, for proprietary interests, they refuse to name). For 18 months, the international team experimented relentlessly, including with pig carcasses — a good proxy, as any MythBusters fan knows, for the human body.
This is, more or less, what they came up with:
Human composting: step by step
Step 1: Body preparation
- First, the body is washed and dressed in a biodegradable gown.
- The body is then placed in its vessel on a bed of alfalfa, straw, and sawdust.
- Families can add their own compostable materials, from love letters to flowers.
Step 2: Inside the vessel
- The body spends 30 days inside the vessel, where a process called aerobic digestion unfolds.
- Oxygen-hungry microbes start to consume organic matter.
- The enzymes in our stomach that digest food when we’re alive digest us after we die.
- As they work, they create a number of byproducts. These include gases and liquids rich with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
- To ensure the microbes work efficiently, they need water and air. At Return Home, a gentle breeze of oxygen is pumped into each vessel.
- All that microbial activity generates a lot of heat, which, in turn, keeps the microbes working.
- Washington state law requires that vessels reach at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours. Return Home regularly reaches 150 degrees and keeps it there for weeks.
- When aerobic digestion is complete, the body has been turned mostly into gas — including N2O, or nitrous oxide, and the volatile organic compounds that give decomposition its signature smell.
- To capture these fragrant gases, Return Home uses a biofilter to treat air before it is released back into the atmosphere.
- What’s left inside is a soil-like material now stained dark with nutrients, along with medical devices and bones.
Step 3: Breaking down bones
- Medical devices are plucked from the compost pile and recycled.
- The remaining mixture is placed in a machine called a cremulator, which breaks bones down into fragments.
- Now that they are small and porous, the bones can be broken down by microbes, too.
Step 4: Resting soil
- The compost enters the home stretch. Over the next 30 days, the material is occasionally rotated.
- As the microbial activity comes to an end, the temperature inside the pile drops, marking the transformation from an active compost pile into soil.
Step 5: Seeding new growth
- In the end, every family receives about 400 pounds of soil.
- The soil can be used just like regular compost: to grow a tree, to nourish a houseplant, or to support a garden.
If anything, Truman may have over-engineered his system. He had always wanted as many discrete parts as possible — that way, if something broke down, he wouldn’t have to ask the nearest electrician to confront a corpse. But some jobs, like separating large bones from medical devices, proved easier to do by hand.
Truman also found himself awash in heartache. Veterans of the funeral industry often say they are living the worst day of people’s lives every day; now, Truman was, too. Spouses, children, and parents were entrusting him with the people that mattered most to them in the world. In the face of such grief, Truman decided a ghost kitchen could never cut it. So he wiped his eyes, turned photos of a forest into enormous rolling panels to cover the Costco-style shelving, and opened the facility to families.
This June, Return Home celebrated one year of business with an anniversary party in their Auburn warehouse. It was a rare cloudless day — the kind locals relish. “The mountain,” as they say of Rainier, “was out.”
Truman, who sported an “I’d Rather Be Composted” shirt, had worried no one would come. People don’t necessarily want to stay friends with their funeral service providers, he said. But dozens of visitors, including people who plan to compost themselves one day and the loved ones of those who have just been through the process, arrived on time, eager to learn more.
With a documentary crew at his heels, Truman spun his guests through the warehouse, from the composting floor to the soil resting area and out back, where the HVAC system lives. A prop plane flew low overhead. Train horns blew a few blocks away. “Someone said it smells like an everything bagel,” Truman told the crowd about the faint odor of escaped NO2. “I said, ‘You’re sicker than I thought.’”
Back inside the warehouse, a family was picking up their soil mid-party: several hundred pounds of the stuff, stored in breathable burlap sacks, or just enough to line the back of a flatbed truck. Gerberding was at the party but left relatively early. She was glad to see how Return Home was evolving, but it was overwhelming to be back in this space, knowing her own “mom-post,” as she affectionately calls it, was cooling in another room.
Sharon Gerberding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1982. At first, the disease progressed slowly, allowing her to continue her work with the local health department and raise her children to adulthood. Later in life, when Sharon’s condition worsened, she moved into an independent living community and required the use of a wheelchair. At the very end, as her body was breaking down and her dignity became harder and harder to maintain, she opted for hospice.
When Sharon died at the age of 75, Rachel Gerberding was at her bedside. She made sure her mother’s nails had a new coat of paint, washed her hair, and removed the urostomy pouch from her stomach and bandaged the stoma. The nurse called Return Home about a pick-up time for the body, and the person on the other end of the line told her they could send someone now — or any time in the next 24 hours. “That was the first true gift of compassion,” Gerberding says. A few hours later, she finally felt ready to let her mother’s body go.
When Sharon’s remains arrived at Return Home, Gerberding received a call letting her know she’d arrived safely, and there was nothing for her family to do but grieve. A few days later, Gerberding and her siblings, Sam Gerberding and Erica Roden, dialed into a conference call with Brie Smith, a licensed funeral director and Return Home’s chief operating officer, to talk through the logistics of the laying-in ceremony.
In many ways, Return Home’s customers are establishing new rituals around death in real time. Often, they don’t know where to start. So Truman and his team throw their best ideas at them. “In the beginning, you say a lot of things you think people want you to say,” Smith says. “But eventually, you learn they actually need your guidance, they genuinely need your input; you have to jump in.”
In this, Return Home has an advantage over more traditional methods: time. When Truman calculated that Return Home’s process would take two months, he thought his startup had already gone bust. Who would want such a long goodbye?
But the Gerberdings and other customers have used the flexibility to their advantage. They gathered in person to celebrate their mother’s life more than two weeks later. After the laying-in ceremony, the facility remained open to them. On any given day, Return Home sees a handful of family members who come to sit in front of their loved one’s vessels (which Gerberding’s brother fondly calls “terrariums’”) and read, play music, or pray.
“If there is such a thing, my mother had a good death,” Gerberding says. “And we, as a family, had a really good healing experience, which is not always the case.”
As NOR spreads into new states and knocks up against new cultures, the industry is sure to face fresh challenges. Companies must do more to make sure that each individual component, especially the crushed bones, is truly bio-available, says Walt Patrick of Herland Forest, a green burial cemetery in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. They will also have to figure out how they get their services to increasingly far-flung customers. After all, shipping bodies to a centralized facility may seem expedient, but a single flight can easily undo any promise of carbon neutrality.
Perhaps most importantly, these facilities must continue to balance efficient engineering and human warmth.
On August 9th, Gerberding picked up Sharon’s soil product. The Return Home team packaged the soil in several 25-pound sacks. Gerberding packed the material up into the wheelchair van her mother used to travel in life. “We do have another vehicle which would have had sufficient room and much better gas mileage,” she noted. But “I felt that her final journey should take place in the van, which allowed her to enjoy the world outside of her apartment.”
Gerberding had big plans for the soil. She had planned to drive several dozen decorative pots of the stuff to Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest for a Labor Day ceremony honoring her mother’s life. There, everyone attending would have received a decorative pot of mom-post and an iris bulb — Sharon’s favorite flower. But wildfires got in the way.
Instead, Gerberding will use the soil in her own garden, as she always intended. Some will be offered to the Seattle Washington Temple. And still more will go to nourish a memorial garden Gerberding started at the senior living community where her mother spent the last two years of her life.
While people may be leery of human compost underfoot, Gerberding associates the compost not with death but with life. Enriched with soil, Gerberding sees her garden as “an actual living memory” of Sharon, who had the eye of a scientist, the warmth of a single mom of three, and an abiding love for the outdoors. Now, she will live on among the birds, the bees, and her beloved irises.
Correction October 3rd: This story has been updated with the full name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and includes the specific temple that will be offered compost. A caption has been corrected to clarify that Sharon Gerberding’s compost will not go to Point Defiance Park. It is the last public garden that Sharon and her daughter Rachel were able to visit before Sharon died.