An option for death brings a mindset for life

The expanding practice of human composting innovates the funeral industry, climate change and death

Greg Fischer and Courtney Vick on the beach in Lincoln City, Oregon.

Greg Fischer had a lot of hobbies — making inappropriate 3D-printed figurines, headbanging, watching The Big Lebowski and crashing cars were just a few.  

Courtney Vick, Fischer’s partner for eight years, describes him endearingly as always seeking to learn new things, try different foods and overcome challenges. The first time Vick met Fischer, she says he was sporting a “man bun,” satchel and plaid shirt — a typical outfit for the Pacific Northwest native. 

“Greg was like a 14 year-old-boy,” she says. “He was very funny.”

Fischer didn’t take life too seriously — only needing a moment’s notice to crack another crowd-pleasing dad joke.   

On May 26, 2022, Fischer died from a heart attack at 51 years old. Between tears and laughter, Vick speaks about her partner fondly.   

After his death, she knew exactly what he would have wanted: natural organic reduction. 

Natural organic reduction (NOR) is the slow decomposition of a human body into soil — human composting. The process marries the funeral industry with sustainable agricultural composting. 

Recompose’s vessel that transforms human bodies into compost. Photo courtesy Recompose.

Fischer’s body was sent from Arizona, where he lived and where NOR isn’t legal, to the first company to practice NOR in the country: Washington-based Recompose. 

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, developed the process herself using techniques from the well-researched and tested process of composting farm animals, with a more humane mindset.  

“This is someone’s loved one, and we have a lot of responsibility in the way we care for that body along the way,” Spade says. “So, similarly, our composting system has been designed very carefully.”

Vick says that Fischer had his own definition of NOR. 

“Greg called this being ‘rotisserie chickened,’ because you get spun and you’re heated up,” she says between laughs. 

Compost needs oxygen, typically introduced by turning over or rotating compost piles, and creates heat as millions of microbes break down organic matter throughout the composting process.

NOR is becoming increasingly accessible to folks across the country. Since Recompose first did it in 2019, NOR is being offered by more and more funeral homes in states where it is legal — including The Natural Funeral, based in Lafayette. 

It’s clear NOR is quickly changing the funeral landscape in our state and across the country — not only introducing an innovative option for people after death, but also bringing a new mindset throughout life. 

Keeping it Natural

Since Washington legalized NOR in 2019, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and California have all followed suit. 

The Natural Funeral is the NOR pioneer in Colorado — laying the first person in a vessel just two weeks after Gov. Polis signed the Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil act into law on Sept. 7, 2021.   

The act includes a few rules businesses have to follow, including prohibiting the use of the soil to grow food for human consumption and commingling human remains or soil without consent.  

Since then, The Natural Funeral has expanded from eight to 32 vessels, perfecting their process along the way. 

They reach the same end product as Recompose, which will open a facility in northeast Denver in the spring of 2023, but have a slightly different process. 

It starts with the vessel: a three-foot wide, three-foot deep and seven-foot long wood container where the composting process occurs. Each is insulated and sealed airtight to closely control the interior environment. 

Along with the body, the vessel is carefully layered with organic material: woodchips, straw and alfalfa. The Natural Funeral also inoculates the vessel with four gallons of a cloudy bacteria-rich “tea” to help speed the decomposition process. 

One of The Natural Funeral’s 32 vessels. The funeral company, based in Lafayette, has offered NOR since last September. Photo courtesy The Natural Funeral.

The staff monitors the vessel for its temperature, oxygen, nitrogen and moisture content over the next four months. After 7-10 days, the vessel reaches 150 degrees — signaling the bacteria are doing their job breaking down organic material. When the temperature goes back down, staff will roll the vessel to re-introduce oxygen to the system. 

They know the process is complete after three heat cycles, when the temperature no longer reaches 150 degrees because there is no more organic material for the microbes to break down. Because bones take much longer to decompose, they break them down using the same equipment used for cremation, then put the bone powder back into the soil. 

At the end of the four-month period, the result is about 600 pounds of dark, chocolatey brown, pathogen-free soil that gets returned to the family. 

Seth Viddal, a co-owner and managing partner with The Natural Funeral, helped design the vessels and NOR process for the funeral home. He realizes how important it is to combine composting science with the dignity and ceremony that comes with more traditional funeral disposition types. 

“We created a beautiful ritual and we want to honor this person,” says Viddal. 

Part of that ritual is to create moments of participation, both at the beginning and end of the process. During the laying-in ceremony, where the body is placed in the vessel, they encourage families to bring a “shoebox size” of organic material that the person connected to.  

Viddal says people have brought parts of trees, cannabis, hops, blueberries and salmon to place with their loved ones in a moment of remembrance. 

After the composting process is complete, the laying-out ceremony is the family’s first opportunity to reunite with their loved one as regenerative, living soil. 

The Natural Funeral’s first laying-out ceremony was of a young man who died unexpectedly at 19 years old. Viddal describes the emotional experience for the parents, who, upon seeing the final product, “shot their hands into this pile of soil almost to the elbow, as if they were embracing the body of their son.”

“It’s the tactile moments of physical participation that are really meaningful [for families],” Viddal says. 

From there, families are free to do what they will with the composted remains. Viddal says families have used it for things like at-home gardening projects and tree plantings. 

Innovating death

Spade says people are often surprised when she tells them about her career. 

“It’s really common for me to be at a dinner party and say what I do, and have someone go, ‘Oh, that sounds icky.’”

She takes these opportunities to make death more approachable. 

“I think when people get through that hurdle of, ‘OK, I’m mortal. There will be a body leftover when I leave this place,’ then you’re looking at options in a more balanced way.”

One strategy she uses is to have her service team wear informal clothing that mimics a forest palette, rather than dark-colored attire.

NOR also introduces a much more environmentally friendly disposition option than conventional burial or cremation. 

“It’s the most ecological form of disposition that exists on the planet right now,” says Viddal.

In burials, people are typically embalmed with formaldehyde (which can break down and release toxins into surrounding soils), placed in a bronze casket inside a reinforced steel vault in a cemetery, where lawns are consistently watered and mowed, under a granite or marble headstone. 

Cremation is increasingly popular, but uses vast amounts of energy and releases carbon — it takes two to three hours at 1,800 degrees to cremate one corpse. 

Recompose claims their process requires one-eighth the energy of conventional burial or cremation. 

The final product of human composting takes up less space. In heavily populated areas, cemeteries are simply running out of space — and charging more and more for each plot.  

The National Funeral Directors Association found the national median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $7,848 in 2021, and $6,970 for viewing and cremation. NOR at The Natural Funeral costs about $8,000, and $7,000 at Recompose.  

Spade, from Recompose, says NOR uses fewer resources and creates a product that can help combat climate change. 

“If we could make human composting the default, we would be creating soil and sequestering carbon with every single person’s death,” she says. 

That’s one reason Fischer wanted to be composted — he was passionate about recycling, the environment and reducing his carbon footprint. 

Fischer’s family picked up his composted remains from Recompose on Oct. 11. From the back of this tailgate, his remains were distributed among friends and family. Photo by Courtney Vick.

Vick says NOR was comforting to her because it would continue Fischer’s interests.

“I can take something that he was passionate about in day-to-day life, and be able to do that with him in the end,” she says.

But, Spade says she’s been surprised at the breadth of people who want this option for themselves, not just environmentalists.

“We have 20 year olds that have signed up for our pre-arrangement process and we have 95 year olds who have signed up for it, and everyone in between.”

Viddal says that the resistance he has seen to NOR has come from two camps: the conventional funeral industry and the Catholic Church. 

The Colorado Catholic Conference wrote in a statement that the Church would not participate because “the reduction of human remains into soil is not consistent with our belief that our bodies are made in the image and likeness of God and should not be used as compost or any similar desecration.” 

Spade says Recompose vessels are designed for gentle and pleasant experiences that “honor the human body [while] composting it.”

The informal, back-to-earth nature of Recompose was the perfect fit for Greg Fischer.

On Oct. 11, Courtney Vick traveled to pick Fischer’s remains up from Recompose in Washington. The rich soil that came from his decomposition, weighing 460 pounds, waited in burlap bags and boxes for family and friends to take home. 

In Fischer’s obituary, it says BYOB — bring your own bucket.

Along with putting Fischer’s nutrient-rich soil on some newly planted trees, Vick thought it would be fitting to keep some of Fischer’s soil remains in a shimmering red Folgers can — just like Donnie’s ashes in The Big Lebowski

“The idea that his urn would be a movie reference,” Vick says, “is very Greg.”  

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