‘Gonna change the world’: Inside the first large-scale human composting facility

Special Reports

Return Home plans to open in April, with 72 terramation vessels

AUBURN, Wash. (KOIN) — “When I saw this I thought this is the thing that’s gonna change the world,” Return Home CEO Micah Truman told KOIN 6 News in early March, standing outside a nondescript warehouse tucked away in the Seattle suburb of Auburn. Inside, construction crews raced to get Washington’s largest natural organic reduction facility up and running by April to meet the growing demand for the alternative to traditional burial or cremation.

Truman worked in banking and finance, making the switch to the funeral industry a little more than two years ago when he heard about the move to legalize natural organic reduction, more commonly known as human composting. Return Home calls it “terramation.”

Regardless of the name, the concept is the same. A body goes in a vessel along with a bulking agent like alfalfa, sawdust or wood chips. Add water, air and heat then, after about 30 days, the body — with the exception of bone and teeth, which need to be ground up — is reduced to dirt. A machine screens out inorganic material like metal screws or silicone implants. Then the compost rests for another 30 days before the process is complete.

Return Home will be the third facility to turn folks into fertilizer, and the largest by far. Herland Forest, a natural burial cemetery and research nonprofit near the Columbia River Gorge, has just one vessel so far. Seattle-based Recompose has the capacity to process 10 bodies per month.

“We think that if we have scale, we can make it price competitive,” Truman said. “Otherwise it becomes an expensive thing if you’re doing very few of them.”

Return Home charges a terramation fee of $4,950, which they see as an affordable price. Burial plots alone can cost upwards of $5,500 in Washington and don’t include embalming, caskets and other services.

Getting everything ready by a target opening date of April 1 is quite the undertaking. Crews are transforming an 11,500-square-foot warehouse into an all-in-one funeral experience. One section will house the vessels during the reduction process, but Truman envisions a large open space in the center of the building — as well as a loft area above — being used for laying in ceremonies.

Staff would place the body in the vessel and the family could fill the rest of the space with flowers or any other organic material.

“So we’re now able to have a very human process which we’ve done for thousands … of years,” Truman explained. “We stand next to our loved one, and we say goodbye to them and we cover them in organic material that we ourselves choose.”

Micah Truman, left, stands inside the Return Home warehouse in Auburn. Walt Patrick, right, is pictured at Herland Forest in Klickitat County. The vessels they’re standing by look different, but perform the same function: Reducing a human body to soil.

To make it in the funeral industry, you have to have a good heart, said Katey Houston, a funeral director and embalmer for Weeks’ Funeral Homes. She believes Truman has that, despite having seen comparatively few dead bodies in his life.

“It’s gonna be eye opening for him,” Houston said. “He’s come at this from an outsider perspective.”

Prospective clients have asked Houston about terramation, but until now there hasn’t been the capacity to make it viable.

Now, clients will contract separately with Return Home and the funeral homes will transport decedents to the facility, just like they would with a traditional cemetery. Houston sees this becoming “just another end option,” with funeral directors asking whether customers want burial, flame cremation, water cremation, or composting.

Both she and Truman think the demand is there, and not just from the people you might expect.

“I find it crossing all political spectrums, I find it crossing all religions,” Truman said.

“Yes there is the hippie group of recyclers that are going to want this, but there’s also a group of old school farmers that I think are also going to be into it,” Houston said, noting that many ranchers already compost their animals when they die, viewing it as a natural process. “It’s a way for them to return to their own soil … You’re fertilizing everything.”

While farmers may want the entire cubic yard — approximately 500 pounds — of soil, not everyone else will have that capacity. Return Home and its industry peers will allow families to take as much as they want, then donate the rest to environmental restoration projects.

The legalization of human composting marked a seismic shift in an industry that has been highly regulated and stagnant for decades.

“This is a thing we’ve done poorly as an industry before,” Houston said. “When cremation became a thing, we ignored it.”

Cremation now accounts for a staggering 80% of dispositions in Washington, according to projected 2020 data from the National Funeral Directors Association.

“Especially with my generation of funeral directors, we kind of have to take the reigns at this point and be willing to be transparent and open to new ideas for the families that we serve,” Houston said. “We can’t continue with the old school way of thinking or we’ll become irrelevant.”

Houston sees composting comprising 15-20% of her business within the next five years.

Several other states are poised to allow the practice as well, though. Around a hundred people submitted testimony in favor of Oregon’s proposed legislation earlier this month. Similar bills are being considered in Colorado and California.

“When California ratifies, it’s gonna be bananas,” Truman said. In 2019, the Golden State had the fifth largest economy in the world.

Even though many people crinkle their noses the first time they learn about terramation, Truman said most — including his own family members — warm up to it eventually.

“What we have here is a way for people to say goodbye to their loved one in a way that just plain feels good,” he said.

Terramation vessels sit outside Return Home in Auburn, Washington, waiting to be installed. The facility is aiming to open April 1, 2021 (KOIN).

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