A woodpecker sits on a branch while Cindy Armstrong gazes at a patch of land that was once her son. She smiled as she remembered that the young man, stricken with cancer, wanted his remains to be composted to allow a new life to blossom.
This wish is part of a movement campaigning for more environmentally friendly funerals in the United States. Cindy Armstrong recalls her son telling her she wanted “humusion” (a neologism derived from the word “humus,” the top layer of soil, editor’s note) after Washington, in the western United States, passed the 2019 became the first US state to legalize this alternative to cremation.
“I was terrified”she remembers. “But now that I’ve gone through the process, I’m all for it. I will turn into humus.” Her son’s composted remains, along with others, have been used to restore a mound in the town of Kent, near Seattle. The ramp, a former haunt of drug addicts, was once littered with stripped-down cars, sometimes riddled with bullets.
“He wanted to go back to nature”Armstrong says of her son Andrew, who died at age 36. The land is owned by the start-up Return Home, which has completed 40 humusations since launching in nearby Auburn 7 months ago.
“Better to die”
†It’s as if these people are teaching us how to die better.”says Return Home founder and boss Micah Truman, during a tour of a huge room filled with rows of large metal containers called “containers”†
The room is well lit and lively music plays. Loved ones, who visit during the 60-day decomposition process, can choose songs that celebrate the existence of those who have lost them.
The bodies are not embalmed to avoid the use of chemicals. Families are invited to place flowers or biodegradable materials on the straw and other natural ingredients. The amount of organic matter added is almost three times the weight of the human body, making it possible to produce hundreds of kilograms of compost.
Sensors that monitor humidity, temperature and airflow are synchronized with a computer to optimize the decomposition process. Halfway through, the bones are removed and ground into fine particles before being placed back in the bin to be composted as well. The final product has the appearance and consistency of regular compost.
Families can keep as much as they want while the rest is used to restore the mound. Local urban plans prohibit any construction on land.
For Edward Bixby, chair of the Green Burial Council, this process: “is to return to earth as we came”. “We were dust, we return to dust”describes Mr. Bixby, who opened the first natural burial cemetery in New Jersey 5 years ago and has since established himself in ten US states.
The Green Burial Council, of which he chairs, brings together more than 400 companies dedicated to these green funerals, including some outside the United States. According to this organization, a single cremation requires as much fuel as an SUV’s tank and the bodies reduced to ashes produce greenhouse gases.
Return Home’s services cost $5,000, about the same price as a cremation. It is necessary to count double or triple for traditional funerals. It is possible to have the body wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or placed in a wooden coffin and then buried.
California start-up Coeio is selling a funeral garment containing mycelium, presumably “neutralize toxins from the human body and transfer nutrients to the flora”† Green funerals are part of a natural approach to death, proponents say.
“People started getting scared of death and dying because of horror movies and things like that,” explains Mr. Bixby. †We always had the opportunity to take care of our loved ones after they died, we just forgot.”