Is human composting the next frontier in death care?

Click to play video: 'Is human composting the next frontier in death care?'
Is human composting the next frontier in death care?
WATCH: There is a poetic, even romantic thought about what happens to us when we die. The cycle of life - returning to the earth - is something many of us think about. But, in reality, the way we say goodbye to our loved ones, with embalming, and either cremation or burial - are not good for the environment or sustainable. For The New Reality, Sophie Lui reports on an innovation could change that: human composting – Apr 15, 2023

Death is probably everyone’s least favorite subject, so it’s understandable that most of us put off discussing the inevitable question: what is going to happen to our bodies when we die?

But by ignoring the inevitable, are we making things worse for ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet?

“Our huge fear of talking about dying is killing us,” Micah Truman says. “We are unable — because we cannot face it — to talk about reasonable, considered solutions that make sure that our last act on this planet is not to pollute it.”

Truman works in death care. He strongly feels that what’s happening now in how people are laid to rest is not only bad for the planet — it isn’t what people really want.

Micah Truman is CEO of Return Home, one of the first places in the world to offer human composting services. Darren Twiss / Global News

“People want to return back to the Earth. We can do it. It’s just that easy, and not crazy.”

In the last century, death care in Canada has focused on embalming bodies with chemicals, burial in coffins and cremation — the latter chosen by more than 70 per cent of Canadians. None of these practices are terribly good for the planet.

But there are other greener alternatives gaining traction.


One of them is human composting: the act of turning human bodies into soil.

Human compost is delivered and ready for planting in a burlap bag. Darren Twiss / Global News

It isn’t something we are used to hearing here in Canada but in the United States, it’s becoming a new option among dying wishes.

In May 2019, Washington state became the first place on the planet to legalize the “contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”

“What we give back to our families allows them to put it in the earth and restart the cycle of life,” Truman says. He is the founder of Seattle-based Return Home, a place where people can bring their loved ones to be composted, or as he likes to say, “terramated.”

“We created the word,” Truman says. “There’s a reason. If you lost your loved one, I don’t think I’d say, ‘I’m really sorry about the loss of your grandmother. Would you like to inter her underground or incinerate her?’ Right? We’d say, ‘Would you like to bury or cremate her?’ So we use terramation in the same sense.”

Terramation is what Claudia Mason chose for her husband Robb, a massage therapist in Seattle who was killed in a hit-and-run last July while biking home from work.

“You just can’t imagine ever getting a call like this,” she says.

Robb and Claudia Mason in Seattle. Courtesy: Claudia Mason

In the days that followed, Mason had to make a lot of difficult decisions. But what to do with her husband’s body wasn’t one of them.

“I knew immediately that he was going to be composted.”

So she took him to Return Home.

At about US$5,000, terramation is less expensive than a burial, although slightly more pricey than cremation, which is the option most often chosen in urban areas.

Each cremation emits around 540 pounds of CO2; the same effect as driving from Toronto to Montreal.

“And so we have a process that is absolutely unsustainable and almost exclusively used in our cities,”  Truman says.

Terramation does not involve chemicals that could leach into the soil, as with embalming. There are no coffins that need to decompose or concrete to line the burial plots. It doesn’t really even take up space.

What it does use up is time. At Return Home, it can take as long as two months to convert a body to soil.

When Truman started his business, he was concerned that the time period would be a problem.

“I worried very much that when a family understood 60 days was the time, that it was unacceptable.”

But that has never been the case. “We have never had a single person ever have an issue with 60 days, ever.”

Click to play video: 'Biodegradable burial pods will turn you into a tree when you die'
Biodegradable burial pods will turn you into a tree when you die

It turns out people want time to grieve and say their goodbyes, and in the current death care system, most funerals and cremations happen quickly — within a week of death.

Truman says that is not only unnatural, but it’s a process designed for efficiency — like fast food.

“We have ‘Quarter-Pounder-with-Cheese’d our goodbyes, and it hurts and it runs counter to everything in our bones, but we don’t know why,” Truman says. “Your heart could not keep pace with what just happened. All of our rituals all over the world take all kinds of time. It’s no accident we were not meant to move at that sort of pace. And then we wonder why we were in so much pain.”

Mason had first-hand experience with the longer goodbye with terramation, and saw the extended period as time she treasured. “I was surprised at how involved I became, because traditionally, you just have a brief connection to the funeral home and then you’re gone and then the moment is over.”

Seeing loved ones embrace the extended farewell prompted Truman to offer space at his facility, “to make sure families can see their person,” as Truman says, throughout the terramation process. He even encourages them to personalize the containers.

“So what people typically do is they cover the front of the vessel with pictures, flowers, pieces of paper, love letters.”

Pictures and mementos adorn a vessel for human composting at Return Home. Darren Twiss / Global News

Although the two-month terramation may seem long in terms of the funeral industry, it is actually quite fast compared with the time it takes for natural decomposition to take place — which can be years.

To speed up nature’s process, Return Home consulted scientists and added a few steps.

It starts with placing half a metre of organics like alfalfa, straw and sawdust inside a large rectangular vessel. The body is then placed on top of that. Afterward, more organics are placed on the body, essentially cocooning it.

There are no chemicals involved.

Warm air is then introduced to the container which pushes the organics to rocket up to temperatures above 50 C. That’s when the transformation begins.

“The microbes in your body, the things that digest the food you eat, that transform the food into energy, also literally kick into gear and transform our bodies back into the earth,” Truman says. “We are hardwired, we are designed to return, like a salmon does going up a stream.”

The process requires a constant flow of air — incoming air for fresh oxygen to drive the composting process, and a valve to release spent air which is filtered and sent outside.

Truman says the whole process uses 90 per cent less energy than cremation and that modern filtration techniques mean a facility can operate in an urban setting without disturbing the neighbours with unpleasant odours.

During Global News’ visit to the facility, we were unable to smell any strong odours either inside or emitting from Return Home’s ventilation. At that time, there were 27 bodies decomposing.

At the end of the terramation process, loved ones are given the soil that is created, wrapped in burlap. With the organics, it can add up to as much as 200 lbs of soil. People can then use it to put in their gardens, take to memorable spots or share with friends and family — a way of nourishing life with a life.

Burlap bags of human compost at Return Home. Darren Twiss / Global News

Currently, there is no option to compost a body in Canada but that’s going to change, Lorraine Fracy says.

“It’s coming. And I’ve been saying that for a long time — when they said, ‘Oh Lorraine, it’s a fad!’”


Fracy shakes her head. “‘Naw,’ I said, ‘This is the future of death care.’”

Global News met Fracy during a rare spring snowstorm in Victoria. She is the manager of client services at Royal Oak Burial Park.

Lorraine Fracy is one of the leaders of Canada’s green burial movement. Elias Campbell for Global News

She’s seen the operation at Return Home and believes human composting is both ethical and necessary, given that the number of deaths in Canada has been rising, and will only grow with our aging population.

“People don’t want crematoriums in their neighbourhoods. We’re not making land anymore. We’re not opening cemeteries. We have to do something. We are not equipped to care for our dead at the rate we’re doing now.”

Fracy has become one of the leaders of what’s called the “green burial” movement in Canada. She spoke with her clients and realized they didn’t want to embalm themselves or their loved ones and they didn’t want to be buried in a grave that was lined with concrete.

“They just want it to be natural,” Fracy says.

Click to play video: 'Green burials becoming more and more popular'
Green burials becoming more and more popular

In response, Royal Oak opened a green burial area on its grounds in 2008 — the first in Canada to do so. The Woodlands is 100 per cent green: no embalming, no fancy coffins, no liners or headstones, just biodegradable caskets or shrouds.

The area is covered in natural vegetation: trees, shrubs and ground cover as opposed to grass.

Pathways allow people to wander through the area. One large piece of stone lists the names of those who are buried there.

Currently, there are more than 400 people laid to rest in the Woodlands, and Fracy says demand is growing.

“For the first time in my 23-year career, I’m getting 30- and 40-year-olds that want to give me their credit card over the phone to secure a piece of land so that they can be tucked into the soil,” Fracy says.

Natural burial was a comforting thought for Vancouver resident Nancy Bradshaw. So when she lost her mother last June, she decided to bury her at the newly opened Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery in British Columbia.

Nancy Bradshaw recently buried her mother in Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery. Joel Law for Global News

“I thought, I want to do something that actually honours our Earth rather than creates more emissions.”

Cathy Valentine and her partner Gavin Johnston opened the Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery on their private property in the fall of 2020.

It’s a working farm, along with a forest of Douglas firs they wanted to protect.

Cathy Valentine and Gavin Johnston at their working farm, which is also Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery. Elias Campbell for Global News

The idea to create a cemetery here started when Johnston expressed a desire to be buried on their land.


“I went down the rabbit hole of the internet and found out that you’re not allowed to bury yourselves or your loved ones in any land or anywhere you want. You have to be buried in a designated cemetery or what’s called a place of interment.”

When she told her husband, he said: “Let’s do it then. Let’s build a cemetery on the farm.”

It turned out that deciding to become a cemetery would serve two purposes for them. Since cemeteries in Canada exist in perpetuity, by creating a burial site Cathy, could not only provide a place for her husband, she could also protect the Douglas fir forest on her property.

“We’ve used the green burial designation, the cemetery designation, to protect and conserve the land.”

Bradshaw, who buried her mother there last summer, says that “it’s even better than a cemetery because you’re in a forest and you’re feeding the forest.”

Click to play video: 'City of Vancouver thinking outside the box when it comes to green burials'
City of Vancouver thinking outside the box when it comes to green burials

It’s a chance in death to give life, and in a sustainable way, just as Claudia Mason did with her husband’s soil from Return Home. She used it around the trees near her home and in some of Robb’s favourite places while her friends put it in their gardens.

“In his life, he had healed with his hands and now his body was going to be used in another form of healing just in the soil,” she says.

Return Home’s Truman believes the soil has healing properties, too.

“There is a power to receiving soil from your person that is really unlike anything I think our society has,” he says. “There is that reptilian part of us that knows (soil from our bodies) can then go back and restart the cycle of life.”