In its simplest form, human composting (commonly called ‘terramation’, or ‘natural organic reduction’) is the transformation of a human body into soil. In essence, terramation accomplishes exactly what nature has done since the beginning of time, just much more quickly.
Everything returns to the earth eventually. Even an embalmed body placed in a sealed casket and buried in a cement lined hole will slowly dissolve into the earth – it will just take an extra hundred or so years, and poison the ground in the process. Terramation has been created to simply speed up our return to earth in the simplest and most ecologically beneficial way possible.
So how, exactly will the terramation process work? Let’s quickly list out and describe each stage.
STAGE 1 – LAYING IN
In this stage, the body is placed in a vessel, and surrounded by a bulking mixture of alfalfa and sawdust. This bulking mixture is used similarly to kindling in a fire – it helps the body rapidly attain a 130-150° temperature and stay at that level for 3-10 days. The vessel is approximately 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, 3 feet tall, and is completely reusable.
STAGE 2 – TERRAMATION
The body now quickly heats up, rising to 130-150° Fahrenheit. After 72 hours above 130°, most pathogens and seeds are killed. Over the next 30 days, the body is totally transformed into soil, save for some remaining bones and teeth.
STAGE 3 – REMOVAL OF INORGANICS
With the body completely transformed to soil, all inorganic matter such as titanium screws, artificial joints, and pacemakers are removed. At this point, the remaining contents are now ready for processing.
STAGE 4 – PROCESSING
In this stage, bones and teeth are now ground into ¼ inch shards, and reintroduced into the mix. This grinding process is very similar to what is done in cremation, where all remaining bone is ground into a fine powder before delivery to the family.
STAGE 5 – CURING
In this stage of the process, the compost is left to cure for a period of time prior to final delivery to the family. Curing time will vary from 1-3 months, depending on each terramation company’s internal regulations.
STAGE 6 – DELIVERY
The terramation process is now complete and results in 1-1.5 cubic yards of soil, enough to fill the bed of a medium sized pickup truck. Return Home will pack up and deliver as much of the terramated earth to the family as desired. Any unclaimed earth will be donated to park departments, land trusts, and the like to improve soil health in the region. While times will vary, in Return Home’s case we plan to complete the terramation process in 2 months.
Absolutely no chemicals are used during the process – all that is required are wood chips, sawdust, alfalfa, water, and time.
Families may use the compost however they see fit. The soil is rich in life-giving nutrients and marvelously fertile, making it ideal for gardens and landscapes. Use it to create a memorial flower bed or to plant a tree. Washington State allows for terramated soil to be used in the exact same manner as cremated remains, which gives the family incredible latitude as to where they ultimately choose to use it.
Terramation offers us a chance to save natural resources and nourish the land. It doesn’t just avoid ecological harms of conventional burial and cremation; it actively promotes healthy ecologies. We at Return Home think of this as paying the gift of life forward.