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Getting 'the dead where they need to go': the changing business of death

caption: In Recompose Seattle's Gathering Space, families and friends can say goodbye to their loved ones, before the body begins the process of being composted.
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In Recompose Seattle's Gathering Space, families and friends can say goodbye to their loved ones, before the body begins the process of being composted.
Recompose Seattle

Last month, California legalized a burial practice called human composting.

Here in Washington, the practice has been legal since 2019.

It’s one of many signs that, for the first time in a long time, the funeral industry is changing.

Near the exit for the West Seattle bridge in the SODO neighborhood, there’s a warehouse. It’s at the end of a street, across from a recycling center.

There’s a mural painted across the front, and a garden. It feels strange, to be surrounded by industrial businesses, with garbage trucks rattling by. It's not where you'd expect to go for a funeral.

Katrina Spade says that contrast is part of what makes her business special.

"The process is about returning to nature," Spade says. "And yet here we are in the middle of the city right in an industrial space. So, it is an interesting juxtaposition of those two things."

Spade is the founder and CEO of Recompose, a company in Seattle that composts humans after they've died. Earlier this year, Recompose opened its first in-person funeral home.

"Typically on a day of the ceremony, the person's body is lying here on a cradle," Spade says. "Friends and family lay wood chips and straw onto the body as part of the service. And then we open the door of that vessel and place the body inside."

Once the service is over, and family and friends have left, the cradle is moved to the other side of the warehouse, where the composting begins.

The warehouse is filled with 54 vessels, where the bodies go to actually start decomposing. They’re stacked in a hexagonal, honeycomb pattern.

Think of the process like you would compost happening on a forest floor – covered in sticks and dead leaves, and maybe a squirrel or two, and slowly they’re turning into top soil.

One person can become a cubic yard of soil.

Katrina’s goal wasn’t always to start her own funeral home. For her, this began as a design exercise. What would it look like to create a space where you compost the dead? And how do you make a place for the dead that feels a little less funereal?

Because, for a long time, when you needed a funeral, there was only one option.

"For 70 years, the business model was the same," says Henry D. Johnston. He’s a funeral director and embalmer based in Ellensburg. He’s also the board president for the WCCFA, or the Washington Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association.

"You die on Monday, we meet with you on Tuesday, we have your funeral on Thursday – like three days and done," Johnston says. "And every funeral was practically the same."

Human composting isn’t the only way the funeral industry is changing.

Johnston says that’s because what people need from a funeral or a burial is changing.

"A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be," says Johnston, quoting funeral director and author Thomas Lynch.

Johnston says his funeral home does offer natural burials in partnership with another funeral home, but they haven’t taken off the same way we’re seeing in Seattle. From Henry’s experience, at least as of now, the need for human composting in Ellensburg just isn’t there, at least not yet.

But the pandemic has brought other needs to the surface.

"What I've noticed is the pandemic, put people back into a mindset of how important ceremony is," Johnston says. "I'm talking about memorial services, celebrations of life receptions, honoring somebody's life after they've died. It snaps society into a kind of a mindset of ceremony is important. Ritual is important. Honoring life is important."

Over a million people in the U.S. have died of Covid. There's a good chance that most people have been touched by a death related to the pandemic.

For Henry, that’s brought a need for ceremony.

But at Seattle’s co-op funeral home, the pandemic brought something different.

"We really find a lot of folks want simple services, or no service coordinated by the funeral home," says Amanda Stock, executive director of the People's Memorial Association.

The Co-Op Funeral Home was founded in 2007, as a funeral home for People’s Memorial.

They offer a different kind of “alternative” to the traditional funeral industry, an alternative pricing structure.

Being a co-op means the funeral home is owned by its members. They have a board of directors, and make decisions jointly, including what price services should be.

Last year, the funeral home served around 785 deaths.

They also offer a different alternative burial option – aquamation.

"It's an alternate to flame cremation, sometimes called water cremation," says Kimberly Forsythe, managing director of The Co-op Funeral Home. "It uses water temperature, pressure and an alkaline solution to just gently break down the body. And what is left are our bones, that are then processed and returned to families in an urn. So the end result is very similar to traditional flame cremation. But it uses one-eighth of the energy."

Aquamation is currently legal in 20 states. Stock says around 27% of funeral homes in Washington offer it as a service. She also says that its rising popularity can be linked to something that’s particularly important for Washingtonians.

"We care a lot about the environmental impact of our death care practices, which is not typically as popular in other states," Stock says.

Stock's not alone in noticing this trend.

"Our younger generation takes it as a reality that has to be acted on immediately," she explains. "And I think there's an urgency to that, that is very different from this generation from my generation, and they make their decisions accordingly."

Micah Truman, is the founder and CEO of Return Home, a human composting company in Auburn.

When the facility opened in June of last year, it wasn’t really meant for guests. It was going to be similar to a crematorium, somewhere you bring a family member to, and you come back later to pick up the remains.

But, like Henry Johnston mentioned, people wanted ceremony.

"We found that not only did people come to see us, they came every day," Truman says. "And they didn't just want to come every day, they wanted to sit next to their person's vessel. And they didn't just want to sit next to the person's vessel, they wanted to decorate it and put pictures and love letters on it."

Not every change people are seeing in the needs of the public is positive. Yes, some people want more ceremony, greener burial options, or to create new forms of pricing and paying for services.

But, according to Johnston, people also want things to be easy, in a way death never is.

"We are becoming a disposable society," Johnston says. "And we are becoming a society where we want everything to be easy. And so for a lot of people, cremation, they see it as easy."

In recent years, cremation has overtaken traditional burial as the most popular form of burial in the U.S.

That’s in part because it’s cheaper. Where a traditional burial might cost $12,000, a cremation could be $1,000.

But Johnston says his hope that people will move away from being cremated doesn’t have to do with cost.

Instead, it's about closure.

"What they're ultimately doing is creating more grief for themselves in the long haul," Johnston says. "By not dealing with things and addressing things at the time that a person passes away."

So, after 70 years at a standstill, the funeral business is changing.

What people need is changing. And funeral homes are changing to meet that need.

With all these new alternatives and ideologies, both good and bad, what does the future of the funeral, and the funeral industry, look like?

That's something the industry is trying to figure out right now.

For Katrina Spade with Recompose, it’s about continuing to build, even when you face pushback. For Micah Truman at Return Home, it’s about creating an industry that’s both self sustaining, and humane. And for Henry Johnston with Johnston & Williams Funeral Home and Crematory, it’s about community.

Like with everything else involving something so personal, whoever you ask will tell you something different.

But what seems clear is that the process is becoming more personalized, and more approachable.

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