Life after death: An inside look into the human composting process based in Seattle

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust"– the age-old idea is central to saying our final goodbyes to those we love.  

Today, the actual practice of human composting, first legalized in Washington state in 2019, has never been more popular – or more controversial. The growing "natural organic reduction" industry wants to shake its slightly creepy and even sacrilegious image.

Now, traditional funeral home associations are lobbying to be included in legislation expanding human composting, which is now legal in five more states.

The topic is followed by hundreds of thousands of curious people on social media, and while some question the spiritual aspects, a family FOX 13 followed through this process took comfort in knowing their choice guaranteed life after death.

In his final days, Wayne Dodge proudly chose the option of composting his body, rather than a traditional burial or a cremation.

"When I thought about the carbon impact of cremation -- this organic reduction of composting seemed like a much more ecological option and one that in a way spiritually satisfied me, giving something back to the land," said Marie Eaton, Dodge's sister. "I talked with my brother about that. I showed him the video of Katrina's presentation and he said, 'oh yeah, that's for me.'"

Dodge was in failing health, but as an avid gardener and conscious environmentalist, he knew what climate change was doing to the planet. He didn't want to negatively contribute, even after his passing.

"This choice-- where the remains can go back into the earth-- seems like a wonderful option, and I think Wayne also felt that way," Eaton said.

Dodge is one of the first clients at Recompose, a Seattle facility specializing in human composting.

ALSO READ: A look at the journey to legalize human composting in WA

The gathering space at Recompose appears modern and not what we're used to thinking of death. Typically, we'd envision a funeral home, a piano player performing a soft ballad and dim lighting. While there are tissues for the grieving, this is different. At Recompose, instead of saying goodbye, you're welcoming an opportunity for your loved one to recreate itself in a different form.

"So I'm opening the threshold vessel right now, and what you can see inside is it's not an active composting vessel - it's really a doorway," said Katrina Spade, founder & CEO of Recompose.

The passage Spade presented led to the Recompose greenhouse -- where the true science happens.

Stepping inside is an atmosphere gardeners like Eaton are more than familiar with. You can feel the composting process on your skin, the air is warm and humid. And a smell is ever-present: the distinct earthy aroma of mulch that might make you take a step back if you're not used to it.

Recompose didn’t come up with a patented process, it just lets nature do the work. After all, composting has been practiced for thousands of years. It just hasn't been done with people until recently. However, Recompose has some materials used during the process that are proprietary to them.

"The body is there," Spade said. "It's laid out on this bed of wood chips and straw. I think people putting flowers onto the person's body, moss sometimes from a favorite hiking trail. Their person is being shrouded, knowing that maybe this is the last time that they see them in this form. It can be really powerful."

"Wayne died during the middle of COVID, so it was a time when we were very locked down," Eaton said. "So, we could not be there when his body was placed in the container vessel where he would be composted. But, the people at Recompose reached out to us and made it a ritual that could be part, for us, very meaningful."

Eaton said her brother's two young granddaughters picked wildflowers and branches to add to the biomass Dodge would lay on for composting.

"We took that box of organic matter down to the recompose place," Eaton said. "Those things were layered with the other biomass with my brother's body as he went into the container, so we felt like part of us was there as well even though we couldn't be present."

Eaton said the process of human decomposition was always intriguing to her. Being a gardener, she sees the magic in taking organic matter and turning it into something beautiful -- with the help of other elements.

"Inside each vessel, we place a combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw," Spade said. "And that's actually the perfect combination of materials to encourage microbial activity."

In just five to seven weeks, your body, too, can be turned into mulch.

"Each one is aerated because oxidation is part of the process," Spade said. "And once a week, we slowly rotate the vessel so everything is mixed up nicely, and air and microbes can activate and reach all of the material."

The process is very similar to how you'd treat mulch for your garden. When it's done, the human body is then turned into hundreds of pounds of soil.

"You can see it's beautiful," Eaton said. "It's beautiful mulch. It's gorgeous."

Eaton told FOX 13 that she took her brother's whole truckload of soil and shared it with her family and friends.

"Wayne is planted all over Seattle, and then I brought quite a bit home here," Eaton said. "His daughter lives here in Bellingham, his grandchildren -- they took some and I took some. But out in my garden, every Japanese Maple, my brother is there."

Eaton said the grief isn't so much painful anymore as it is tender, and that's thanks to the human composting process, allowing her to have something not only tangible, but capable of providing life to something new.

"This one, Wayne gave me this tree when we first moved here," Eaton said. "And it was probably six feet tall, and now it is probably 25 feet tall."

Looking at the vivid colors in her backyard, viewing the flourishing greens, she told FOX 13 her brother is always with her. Basking in the sun, under the Japanese Maple leaves he was so passionate about.

"To have that soil in my hands and to know part of his essence is there - that's part of what makes it so powerful when I go out to garden, knowing that there's a little piece of him there," Eaton said.

Eaton said she, herself, has chosen the option of human composting upon her death -- especially after experiencing the results her brother produced.

"Human composting, the word sounds odd," Eaton said. "Composting, it sounds like you're throwing your scraps on the compost pile. But, really, it's the process of allowing the body to go back to the essential elements that all of life is made from."

The process of breaking down was so inspiring, it allowed her to create something new. Eaton wrote a song about the cycle of life that she performed as Recompose conducted Dodge's lay-in ceremony.

The environmental benefits go beyond enriching the soil. According to a New York Times analysis, funerals bury 20 million feet of treated wood, more than four million gallons of embalming fluids, and a million and a half tons of reinforced concrete each year.

As far as cost goes, the typical price for human composting ranges between $2,500 to $5,000. That’s about 50% cheaper than a traditional burial ceremony and is on par with full-service cremation. At Recompose in Seattle, it costs $7,000 to undergo the human composting process. Evergreen-Washelli in Seattle also offers human composting for almost $5,500.

Learn more about their operations here.