Did you know that in most U.S. states, burials on private land are legal? So if you’re a homebody, you can spend eternity in your backyard. Of course, there are drawbacks, such as the risk of being dug up by animals, the potential ick factor for your housemates and the fact that the burial has to be disclosed to future home buyers, who might be unenthusiastic about the idea and try to knock down the sale price your survivors are asking.
A better idea might be Terramation, or human composting. As opposed to cremation, which breaks the body down by fire, or aquamation, which uses water, terramation depends on natural processes of the earth. Once your body has been transformed into high-quality compost, your loved ones can take you home to your own yard — without having to disclose the fact to future home buyers. Or you could fertilize multiple gardens. The sky — er, the ground, is the limit.
Washington terramation facility wins award
Washington, Indiana and California are the three stick-in-the-mud states that still ban backyard burials, although it might be possible to get around this limitation by establishing your own cemetery. Which just happens to be in your backyard.
So maybe it isn’t a coincidence that Washington state is an early adopter of human composting. So far, this procedure is legal in Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and now California. California just passed its law in September, to go into effect in 2027.
Washington leads the way with the first large-scale terramation facility. Return Home won the coveted title of Washington State’s 2022 Funeral Home of the Year in August.
As the Auburn, Washington-based company said in a statement, it won “not only for its dedicated and professional care in serving families with compassion and dignity when they need it the most, but also for its ethical, earth-friendly alternative to burial and cremation that gently transforms human remains into rich, fertile soil.”
The terramation process
The 11,500 square foot facility opened in June 2021. Return Home promises that in 60 days it converts a whole body into organic compost without using fossil fuels or releasing CO2 emissions.
How does it work? After a death, Return Home arranges for the body to be picked up and transferred to its Auburn facility. There, workers lay the body on a bed of straw, sawdust and alfalfa in a coffin-shaped vessel. More organic material is heaped on top of the body. They close the lid and leave things up to nature. Microbes in the body soon become hyperactive and quickly transform the body into soil.
There’s also a personal component to the process. Survivors can plan an optional laying in ceremony for their loved ones. They can create a ritual or service and add special things like letters or flowers to the vessel. Some people decorate the outside of the vessel and even come visit during the process. With the lid closed, I’m pretty sure.
After a month, workers separate out the soil from the bone. The bone is ground into ash, mixed with the soil, and allowed to sit for a second month. Then the former person is ready to go home with their family as compost — surprisingly a lot of it. A terramated body yields about 1.5 cubic yards of soil, or enough to fill more than 10 burlap bags. If that’s more than the survivors want to take home, Return Home will add the compost to local land in need of nutrients.
Are we saving the planet yet?
“It’s often said that what we do is a little bit weird, but on our side, we think that it’s saving the world,” company Founder and CEO Micah Truman said in a video about Return Home. “It’s making the world a better place.”
Cremation has been widely adopted since the early 1900s, partly for its space-saving aspect as old cemeteries filled up. But burning a body is an energy-intensive process that sucks up 30 gallons of fossil fuel and pumps 500 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. U.S. cremations add about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Modern burial practices also have downsides — use of dwindling land resources, chemicals used in embalming, concrete, steel and rebar buried in the soil.
Natural burial — laying the whole body to rest without embalming, wrapped in a shroud or in a compostable coffin — is another environmentally sound option. But if you want to spend the afterlife in home sweet home, terramation sounds like a pretty good plan.
“Returning organic matter and nutrients back to the soil is really good for the health of our planet,” said soil scientist John Paul, who helped devise the terramation process.
Return Home’s current cost is $4,950 and includes transportation to Auburn, Washington (extra charges may apply, depending on your final location), filing of death-related paperwork and some really prime compost. Pre-planning is available.
Images via Return Home