Human composting? Arizona legislators consider bill legalizing natural decomposition as eco-friendly burial alternative

A posed dummy with plant material demonstrates how a person’s body is placed in a Recompose cradle during a “laying-in” ceremony, just before the decomposition process begins. (Photo courtesy of Recompose)

Ted Makropoulos said he plans to plant a sunflower in his backyard every year in honor of his late wife, Carla, who died last year. (Photo courtesy of Ted Makropoulos)

PHOENIX — There may soon be a new option in Arizona funeral care: human composting.

The process, also called natural decomposition, converts human remains into soil and gives grieving family members the opportunity to plant trees and gardens using their loved one’s remains.

“It’s really pretty simple. It’s exactly what happens when leaves fall from the trees and become one with the ground,” Brie Smith, chief operating officer of Return Home, said. “We’re just letting nature take its course, and then (people) are able to move through their grief in this most beautiful, meaningful way.”

Sponsored by Rep. Laurin Hendrix, R-Gilbert, and Sen. T.J. Shope. R-Coolidge, HB 2081 and SB 1042 – dubbed the “Circle of Life” bills– seek to legalize natural decomposition and give Arizonans the option to compost their loved ones after death.

The legislation would change the state’s funeral services law, allowing companies in the state to offer natural organic reduction as an alternative to traditional burial or cremation services. The House and Senate have each approved their own versions of the bills, which are currently awaiting action in the opposite chamber.

“This is all about choice,” said Jake Hinman, lobbyist for Natural Organic Reduction of Arizona. “If this process doesn’t make sense to you, there are many other options out there for your loved ones. But for those that this does make a lot of sense to, we just want to have this option for Arizonans, and it’s really as simple as that.”

Currently, the process is only legal in seven states: Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California, New York, Vermont and Nevada. Many others are currently considering legislation to legalize the process.

The process of natural decomposition involves the body being placed into a vessel where a variety of organic material, such as straw, alfalfa and woodchips, are added. Within 30 to 60 days, the body breaks down into soil. The process generally costs between $5,000 and $7,000, according to US Funerals Online, which is less than a typical funeral service and about the same as traditional cremation.

Human composting is undertaken by specialized funeral companies such as Washington-based Return Home, which can take clients from 49 out of 50 states. According to Smith, there is a network of mortuary shipping companies and funeral professionals that have worked together to accommodate transporting unembalmed remains across state lines.

Recompose, a specialized funeral company based in Seattle, was the first human-composting facility established in the country. According to founder and CEO Katrina Spade, Arizona currently ranks third among the states in the number of loved ones sent to the Recompose facility.

The Recompose gathering space is where laying-in funeral ceremonies takes place. The body, shrouded in natural cloth, lies on a dark green bed called the cradle. (Photo courtesy of Recompose)

The Recompose gathering space is where laying-in funeral ceremonies takes place. The body, shrouded in natural cloth, lies on a dark green bed called the cradle. (Photo courtesy of Recompose)

Spade said the hard part of developing the process is already done. Companies have figured out the best practices of natural decomposition, which will make it easier for states to implement legislation.

“The reality is, this process is well-tested,” she said. “It’s already operating, there’s several companies offering it. It sounds kind of complicated, but actually, I think it’s pretty simple. We’re offering more choices, and we’re offering an environmentally sustainable choice.”

A large part of the push behind this new funeral option is finding a sustainable alternative to current practices, which have a significant carbon footprint. Traditional burial involves the consumption of a substantial amount of urban land and resources, while cremation contributes to air pollution. A single cremation emits approximately 418 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the equivalent of driving 470 miles in a car, according to Chemical and Engineering News.

Smith said she worked in the traditional funeral industry and saw firsthand how many resources go into a traditional burial or cremation. She said an important part of legalizing natural decomposition is offering a sustainable burial option.

“We don’t have any propane,” she said. “We don’t use concrete, rebar, steel or wood. We’re not using materials to bury people, and we’re also sequestering all the carbon that goes up the smokestack in cremation and we’re putting it back into the soil.”

Smith emphasized that an important step in the grieving process is giving families the power to be as involved as they would like. Recompose opens its facility doors to visitors and provides families the choice to bathe loved ones before they are placed in the vessel.

“Our process, because it’s so slow moving … we’ve invited people into our prep room, and the hands that are loving people in life are continuing to love them in death,” Smith said. “We’re really changing the viewpoints around grief and healing and what it means to truly let the family take over as far as they want.”

Though shipping options are currently available to Arizonans, Smith said that the creation of local facilities, which could be made possible if the legislation is enacted, would help bring families into the process.

Ted Makropoulos' wife Carla chose a natural decomposition option for herself after seeing a YouTube video about the process. (Photo courtesy of Ted Makropoulos)

Ted Makropoulos’ wife Carla chose a natural decomposition option for herself after seeing a YouTube video about the process. (Photo courtesy of Ted Makropoulos)

“The ability for natural organic production facilities to be local so people have an option that’s gentle and moving and they can be hands-on with their loved ones … it’s really important to a lot of people,” she said.

When Smith’s aunt died recently, she was transported from Arizona to the Return Home facility. Within a month or two, the family will receive back a shipment of soil.

“Not only would I do it for myself, but I would most definitely do it for the people I love,” Smith said. “I think that’s how I know that I’m doing the right thing.”

Phoenix resident Ted Makropoulos is honoring the wishes of his late wife, Carla, by growing sunflowers with compost from Recompose.

The couple first found out about the option through a video online a couple years prior. Makropoulos said the flowers were all Carla’s idea.

“She’d said at the time, ‘If anything were to happen to me, we’re going to do this, and I want you to plant a sunflower for me every year,’” he said.

When she died from heart failure in April 2022, Makropoulos reached out to Recompose, which assisted him with the process. He’ll be planting a sunflower for her in his backyard every year.

“It’s just indescribable,” Makropoulos said. “It was so surreal getting the compost back and opening it up for the first time, getting hands on with it. Working with (Recompose), it just felt so peaceful, and it was everything Carla would want.”

Sadie Buggle(she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Sadie Buggle expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. She works as the managing editor of Arizona State University’s independent news organization, The State Press.