What We Do with Our Bodies When We Die

9/4/18

The UBB (which I may have mentioned a time or three) is really cool. One of the things that they do is every two weeks they have guest lecturers come in and discuss various topics. This is called the “Salon Series.”

This week’s salon lecturer was Katrina Spade from Recompose.life, a group of people wanting to change how we think about how we honor our loved ones when they die.

Currently, when deciding what one wants to have happen to their body after death there are three options for people in the US:

1) burial with or without embalming
2) cremation
3)donate to science

I personally want to be striped for parts like a used car as an organ donor and then have the leftovers donated to science. However, Katrina Spade has an interesting alternative which is quite tempting to me as a pagan, and may appeal to many other people as well.

Here’s the big idea: both cremation and burial have major problems. Cremation throws a bunch of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere from using natural gas to burn the body. Embalming puts a cocktail of chemicals into the ground which can eventually reach the water table, and even burying without embalming takes up a piece of real estate for basically ever.

When these facts were presented during Katrina Spade’s lecture I couldn’t help but ask myself the following questions:

What good does it do to honor our dead if we are not respecting Mother Earth? What would both honoring our dead and respecting the Earth look like? Can we purposefully put our dead through the Earth’s natural process?

Then, like some sort of professional speaker, Katrina Spade proceeded to answer those very questions (it was a really good lecture). Recompose.life is a company that has been working on a way to turn the body of someone’s loved one into soil through a process similar to composting, but differs in a few important ways.

The process for doing this was first used by farmers to turn a dairy cow carcass in to something that farmers the world over can never get enough of, dirt. They did this by placing a cow carcass in a tub of wood chips (among other not so top secret ingredients) and waiting. Bacteria then proceed to grow like crazy and broke the cow and wood chips down on a molecular level generating enough heat to reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as they maintained the proper balance of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and moisture (thus the not so secret ingredients) the cow would be quality soil nine to ten months later. (Alas, poor Bessy, we knew thee well…)

Katrina Spade and company then proceeded to contact various people to help them with their research and found people willing to donate their bodies to science. They learned that the same process farmers were using to dispose of a cow could be used to recompose a person in about thirty days.

Which answers my questions: yes, we can purposefully put our dead through the earth’s natural process, respect the dead, and Mother Earth. At the end of the recompose process a person’s body is turned into high quality soil; there is no carbon being pumped into the atmosphere or pollutants in the ground like with cremation and embalming. Instead, one’s final resting place can be a nature preserve or flower conservatory.

Did I mention that I really like this idea? Because I really like this idea.

There are a few barriers in place preventing Recompose.life from opening their doors tomorrow. State law specifies exactly what can be done with human remains. Thus far, the recompose process has been worked through the “donate to science” option.

However, before it can be made generally available to everyone the state law in each individual state will need to be changed to make it an option. Before March 2019 Recompose.life is hoping to have Washington state law changed, if they can make that happen then they will begin raising the six million dollars needed to outfit a facility in Seattle. (just because I have to say it, holy snikies, that’s a lot of money!) Then after that they hope to open their doors in the year 2020.

I am really hoping Katrina Spade and company are able to pull this off. Not just because of the idea itself, but also because of the sensibility being brought to the work. They want this process to be as affordable as possible. While they don’t believe they will be able to drive their costs down enough to be cheaper than cremation, they are confident that the recomposing will be much more affordable than embalming and burial. They want to set up a community fund for low income families and encourage people with the means to care for both the Earth, and the person next them by donating. They want families to be a part of the process at every stage as much as possible, from washing the body, to shrouding, to placing the body in the recompose vessel, and retrieving the result at the end of the process.

If you or someone you know is currently thinking about what they want when Ms. DeMort comes calling, check out Recompose.life

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