[Report] To Be a Field of Poppies, By Lisa Wells | Harper's Magazine

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[Report]

To Be a Field of Poppies

The elegant science of turning cadavers into compost

Clear Cut (detail), by Dustin Yellin. All artwork © The artist. Artwork photographed by Martyna Szczęsna

[Report]

To Be a Field of Poppies

The elegant science of turning cadavers into compost
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Amigo Bob Cantisano didn’t think he was going to die. But his wife, Jenifer Bliss, who had cared for him through eight years of throat cancer, could see that his condition had taken a turn for the worse. The tumor in his neck had imploded, leaving an open wound that Jenifer kept clean and dressed. Little by little, it was growing toward his carotid artery. The doctors warned he could bleed out any day.

“I believe your spirit will live on,” she told him, “but your body isn’t doing so good. It’s important to talk about what you want.”

Amigo Bob didn’t know what should be done with his body. To bury toxic embalming fluid in the earth was out of the question—he was a lifelong environmentalist. Otherwise, he hadn’t given the matter much thought. Then Jenifer heard about human composting.

A few months earlier, in May 2020, a Washington State bill legalizing the conversion of human remains into soil, known as natural organic reduction (NOR), had gone into effect. A company called Recompose was due to open the world’s first NOR facility that December in Kent, a city just south of Seattle. They named it the Greenhouse. It seemed perfect for Amigo Bob, who had revolutionized the field of organic agriculture—first as a farmer, then as an advocate and consultant—and spent his life building soil and protecting it from the “pesticide mafia.”

When he began to accept that the end was near, Amigo Bob called the founder of Recompose, Katrina Spade. He wanted to make sure she knew what she was doing. Compost is the basis of organic farming, so he knew a lot about it—he’d even served as an adviser for a few large composting operations. Katrina explained their process, and he seemed to find her account convincing, but it wasn’t until his final moments that he told Jenifer definitively: “This is what I want.”

He died the day after Christmas. His loved ones washed and anointed his body and kept vigil at his bedside. “He looked like a king,” Jenifer told me. “He was really, really beautiful.” She showed me a few photos. His body had been laid atop a hemp shroud and covered from the neck down in a layer of dried herbs and flower petals. Bouquets of lavender and tree fronds wreathed his head, and a ladybug pendant on a beaded string lay across his brow like a diadem. Only his bearded face was exposed, wearing the peaceful, inscrutable expression of the dead. He did look like a king, or like a woodland deity out of Celtic mythology—his gauze-wrapped neck the only evidence of his life as a mortal.

On the third day of their vigil, Jenifer felt his spirit go.

Amigo Bob joined nine other pioneers at the Greenhouse on the cusp of the New Year: the first humans in the world to be legally composted. Reading their obituaries, I learned that they were as old as ninety-two and as young as forty-eight. One was an “accidental florist,” one a “voracious reader,” another a “skilled baker” and “serious cook.” There was a landscaper, a painter and woodworker, a beekeeper and dog trainer. One taught creative writing to homeless youth, one had a thirty-year career in law enforcement. One man, Ernie Brooks, helped to establish the field of underwater photography and was known as the Ansel Adams of the sea.

Each of their bodies was placed inside an eight-foot-long steel cylinder called a “vessel,” along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Over the next thirty days, the Recompose staff monitored the moisture, heat, and pH levels inside the vessels, occasionally rotating them, until the bodies transformed into soil. The soil was then transferred to curing bins, where it remained for two weeks before being tested for toxins and cleared for pickup.

Half of the NOR soil would wind up in a forest on Bells Mountain, in southwestern Washington, near the Oregon border. A composted body produces approximately one cubic yard of soil, which can fill a truck bed and weigh upwards of 1,500 pounds. For many surviving relatives—apartment dwellers, for example—taking home such a large quantity of soil is unrealistic, so Recompose offers them the option to donate it to the mountain, where it’s used to fertilize trees and repair land degraded by logging.

But Amigo Bob was a farmer, so Jenifer rented a U-Haul and brought the whole cubic yard of him home. She turned the trip into a kind of pilgrimage, stopping to visit loved ones and the headwaters of their favorite rivers. Over the next few months, their farmer friends came by and filled small containers with the soil to use on their own land. Jenifer used some to plant a cherry tree.

I asked her what it was like to have her husband home again, piled up in her driveway.

“Well, it’s compost,” she told me. “It’s still precious because it was his body. But it’s also compost.”

In my life I have encountered two kinds of people: those who spend time thinking about, talking about, and making plans for their future corpse; and those who prefer not to. I belong to the former category. As a child, I desperately wanted a Viking burial, an idea inspired by the 1988 Macaulay Culkin film Rocket Gibraltar, in which a group of kids boost their grandpa’s corpse, load it onto a boat, push it out to sea, and light it on fire with a flaming arrow. If the sky glowed red, the narrator explained, it meant the dead Viking had “led a good life.”

By my twenties, I had settled on the more realistic option of cremation. I wanted my ashes scattered on the banks of my favorite river, or cast from a cliff into the Pacific Ocean, or fired into the atmosphere from a cannon. (I was in a Hunter S. Thompson phase.) But after a friend’s ashes were lost in the mail, I reconsidered. I explored sky burial, in which a corpse is left out in the open to be fed upon by raptors; and alkaline hydrolysis, a process in which flesh is liquefied in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide. More recently, I planned to follow the example of Nineties heartthrob Luke Perry and purchase an Infinity Burial Suit: a shroud containing fungi that would consume my corpse and bioremediate its toxins.

Like Jenifer Bliss, I think it’s important to talk about what we want, mainly so that our survivors don’t have to guess. But I’m also drawn to the death meditation itself, which can lead to useful reflections on life. The appeal of a Viking burial, for instance, was twofold. There was the beauty and drama of uniting the elements in death; I wanted to float, burning over the ocean, and to have the sky take measure of my life. But I also wanted to live like the kids in the movie; kids who build bonfires, shoot bows and arrows, and defy the authorities. In other words, thinking about the kind of death I wanted taught me about the kind of life I wanted.

A willingness to face life’s nonnegotiable realities seems to me one mark of psychological maturation. But it comes at a price—the discovery that the world is not as simple as we once believed. Truth contaminates the dream. The Viking burial, for example, is apocryphal; the Vikings were known to burn their dead in boats, but kept them parked on land. What’s more, their funerals sometimes involved human sacrifice, in which a female slave was raped by the dead man’s clan, then ritually stabbed and strangled. Other, less sinister realities: both sky burial and the firing of heavy artillery are frowned upon in the city of Seattle, where I live. And even if cannons were permitted, cremation releases about 540 pounds of carbon per incinerated corpse. The carbon output from a year’s worth of cremations in the United States is roughly equivalent to that from burning 400 million pounds of coal. Alkaline hydrolysis has less ecological impact, but like cremation, it wastes the body’s energy; instead of going up in smoke, nutrients are flushed down the drain. Even the mushroom suit, according to critics, adds nothing to the decomposition process that soil itself can’t provide. At the end of such a litany, one is liable to conclude, as Dorothy Parker did, “You might as well live.”

Of course, that isn’t a realistic option either. And so I approach the dark wood of the middle of my life intrigued to encounter human composting, a method of final disposition with no apparent downside, a method purported to prevent a metric ton of carbon dioxide per body from entering the atmosphere, and to produce soil capable of fertilizing trees and flowers. Whether these benefits withstand the stress of extended consideration remains to be seen. But to leave behind a net-positive legacy, to grow something beautiful in death, would be a dream. As a series of attractive promotional cards printed on recycled stock informs me: “I could be a pinecone,” “I could be a forest grove,” “I could be a field of poppies.”

Clear Cut II, by Dustin Yellin

Clear Cut II, by Dustin Yellin

Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose, is an architect by training. The idea for human composting first came to her in 2011, when she was a graduate student at UMass Amherst. More precisely, she was drinking a beer in her backyard, watching one of her babies roll around on the grass and marveling at how quickly they grow. It occurred to her that she, too, was growing quickly. But toward what? Oh, right, her certain demise. And what would become of her body when she died?

In retrospect, she now views this revelation as “a little bit trite,” but it inspired her to look for alternatives to cremation and burial, neither of which appealed to her. That’s when a friend introduced her to livestock mortality composting, a little-known agricultural practice in which farmers inter their expired livestock in outdoor compost piles.

Katrina’s master’s thesis, “Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Resting Place for the Urban Dead,” contained the seeds of what would eventually become Recompose. She conceived of human composting as a solution to the problem of overcrowded cemeteries and the environmental costs of conventional burial and cremation. But her proposal was also a critique of the premise underpinning those methods—that the body is a disease vector to be disposed of, rather than a potential source of new life. She imagined transforming human remains into soil, “ready to nourish new living beings.”

In 2014, Katrina was awarded a fellowship to pursue her idea, and the first stories about her vision for human composting began to appear in the press. Around that time, she received an email from Tanya Marsh, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law, who, Katrina recalled, said something like, “Hi, I’m Tanya, I wrote the book on funeral law in the United States, and I just want to let you know what you’re proposing to do is illegal. I’d love to talk to you about it.” The following semester, Marsh’s students began studying human composting in class, trying to figure out which states had the most promising regulatory pathways. It seemed possible that some states’ funeral codes might allow for it, but in the end everyone decided that pursuing legalization specific to NOR would be a more effective strategy.

First, Katrina would need to conduct a pilot study with human bodies. She moved her family to Seattle, where she contacted Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist who’d authored studies on livestock mortality composting. In 2018, Katrina and Lynne began a “closed vessel” study with six donor bodies, using a composting drum that was originally devised for livestock remains. An outdoor compost pile is subject to the caprices of weather, and breaking down bones can take more than a year. A closed vessel, on the other hand, would speed up the process by allowing for more control over oxygen, heat, and moisture levels. “You are dramatically ramping up microbial activity,” Lynne explained. “You’re creating an environment that promotes extremely high activity and heat production.”

Composting isn’t rocket science, but the process requires a precise amount of sustained heat to eliminate pathogens and quickly convert decaying organic matter to soil. At lower temperatures, “you’ll have de-emanation and denaturation,” Lynne said, but not true composting. In this sense, the scabby pile of coffee grounds and cut weeds in my yard is actually a decomposition pile. “In the backyard setting,” Lynne cautioned, “we do not recommend that people even compost their cat.”

The pilot study delivered. Pathogens were eliminated, and pharmaceuticals were remediated to levels well under EPA limits. The closed-vessel system also accelerated the proliferation of the thermophilic organisms that break a body down, transforming it into soil in just thirty days. In a “green burial,” by comparison, in which a body is buried in an unlined grave in a shroud or a simple wooden coffin, the process can take up to twenty years.

In the early days, Katrina called her idea the Urban Death Project. It was as direct a name as she could come up with, a way to refuse euphemism in an industry otherwise saturated with it. But it didn’t quite capture the regenerative aspect of NOR. So when she formed her company in 2017, she named it Recompose. The term is canny branding, but it’s also a fair description of the process, in that the very molecules of the dead are taken apart and reassembled, as the pilot study put it, into a material that is “unrecognizable visually, chemically, or microbiologically as human remains.”

Katrina and Lynne had proved that their process worked, but the legality of NOR was still murky. Katrina had been doing outreach, giving talks, and strategizing about legalization with a local lobbyist. Then, as luck would have it, she realized that a state senator, Jamie Pedersen, lived just down the street. She asked him to coffee and explained what she was up to. “Climate change is high on his list, and he knew his constituents were going to be excited about the idea,” she told me. In 2019, Pedersen introduced SB 5001 (“Concerning Human Remains”), the first bill in the country to propose legalizing human composting. “We had six people donate their own bodies to the study before they died—that was their last gesture, and that said something,” Katrina told me. “Some of their friends and family testified to the legislature saying, ‘This was really meaningful for my person.’ ” Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law that year. (Since then, similar bills have been introduced in California, Vermont, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Colorado. The latter two have already passed.)

Meanwhile, Recompose had gained a large following on social media. Its mailing list grew to fifteen thousand subscribers. People all over the world were interested in having their bodies composted. The company had originally leased an 18,500-square-foot warehouse in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood with the intention of installing one hundred vessels. Then the pandemic disrupted funding. An acquaintance offered a deal on the much smaller warehouse space in Kent, and Katrina had to settle for just ten vessels at launch. “My biggest fear was that I’d talk about it for ten years and never do it,” she said. The vessels were booked immediately and a wait list began to form.

Evidence of formal hominid burial dates back 120,000 years. Across the ancient world, people interred their dead in large mounds known as tumuli, landforms between three and ninety feet tall, sometimes built in geometric patterns or in the likenesses of animals. Evidence of sky burial dating back 12,000 years was found at the Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, but the practice is likely far older. (We don’t know exactly how long human beings have practiced sky burial, or cremation, or burial at sea, because evidence of the dead vanishes in the process.) The intentional preservation of corpses through mummification was practiced by the Chinchorro of Chile’s Atacama Desert as early as 5000 bc, and has been practiced elsewhere in South America, Asia, the Canary Islands, and of course in Egypt, where priests preserved the dead with oils, plant extracts, and pine resin.

Early American families tended to care for the dead on their own, preparing, dressing, and laying bodies out for viewing in basic wooden coffins. The dead were then buried in the local churchyard or in family plots on the back forty of the farm. The professional undertaker and his industry didn’t emerge until the Civil War, alongside the increasingly common practice of embalming, which stalled decomposition long enough for fallen soldiers to travel great distances home for burial. The procedure was both unregulated and profitable, fetching as much as $100 a corpse. Itinerant embalmers began to trail the Union Army, hovering at the edge of battlefields like kettles of vultures. The most famous embalmed corpse of the time, that of President Lincoln, was a national attraction that passed through seven states before coming to rest in Springfield, Illinois, more than two weeks after his death.

By the 1950s, embalming had become standard in the United States, but I wonder if this would have been the case had people understood the violence involved. There is no single method, but in a typical scenario, fluid containing formaldehyde is pumped into the carotid artery, which forces blood and other fluids in the corpse out of a tube in the jugular or femoral vein. An aspirating device resembling a meat thermometer is then repeatedly pushed into the abdomen and chest, where it punctures the organs. The organs are then filled with concentrated “cavity chemicals.” No wonder embalming is considered desecration in some traditions, including among Muslims and Jews, who bury their dead in shrouds or simple coffins, sometimes without nails or fasteners, to avoid obstructing the decomposition process.

What constitutes desecration of a corpse is culture-bound; one man’s desecration is another’s honorable final disposition. For some, cremation is the only way to release a body’s spirit. For others, the idea of burning a loved one’s corpse before sending his bones through a pulverizer is the height of barbarism. Ditto the notion of leaving a loved one’s remains on a scaffold to be picked apart and consumed by birds, though for the Zoroastrians, who practice sky burial, burying or cremating a corpse would dishonor the sacred elements of earth and fire. Before the practice was condemned by Parliament in the early nineteenth century, people who died by suicide in England were given a profane burial at crossroads. Among early American Puritans, an honorable burial meant orienting the dead’s feet toward the east, so they’d rise to face Jerusalem when Christ returned, and Muslims are buried facing Mecca.

The only characteristic that funerary mores seem to share is intentionality. Disposing of the dead in an arbitrary manner—leaving a body where it fell on the battlefield, or tossing it with others into a mass grave, limbs akimbo—is a universal sign of disrespect. Intention is how we signal care, whether or not we believe that the soul persists, or whether we believe in a soul at all.

Surprisingly, burial customs are rarely rooted in earthly practicalities like public-health concerns. Save for a few infectious diseases that remain active in corpses, dead bodies are not generally dangerous. The traditional six-foot burial depth, it turns out, is unnecessary. It’s said to have originated during the Black Plague, when people mistakenly believed corpses were the cause of its spread, rather than flea-ridden rats. Decomposition brings with it gases and odors and scavengers, which can be disturbing and unpleasant for the living, but putrefaction itself is not a source of disease. In emergencies that result in mass death, the World Health Organization prioritizes allocating resources to survivors ahead of burying the dead. Our concern, the group says, should be for the living. By my lights, this is also the most convincing argument for being composted.

Psychogeography #98 (detail), by Dustin Yellin

Psychogeography #98 (detail), by Dustin Yellin

I visited the Greenhouse one gray afternoon in April, a couple of weeks after Jenifer picked up Amigo Bob. It’s a modest warehouse, surrounded by office parks and machine shops. Through the open bay door, I could see the “array”: a white wall of interlocking individual vessels. Each vessel rests within a hexagonal frame, so that stacked together they resemble a big white honeycomb. Or some kind of Scandinavian storage solution. Or something out of a Seventies sci-fi film: the galactic travel chambers of the future! This is not just idle comparison. The clean design is a kind of hedge against inborn anxieties related to dirt and decay, though it does also invite nervous allusions to Soylent Green. (Recompose discourages the planting of food crops with NOR soil. Not for any scientific reason, but because the idea makes people uneasy.)

Katrina Spade greeted me at the threshold. We’d only ever talked on the phone, and she was wearing a mask, but I had no trouble identifying her. Whereas many others in the alternative death industry style themselves on a witchy continuum of piercings and botanical tattoos, Katrina wears her hair high and tight, and dresses in trousers and button-downs. Her vibe is warm, but sober, so that when she tells one of her handful of death jokes—“Turns out it doesn’t really make good business sense to sell someone a piece of land for eternity. Whose idea was that?”—the listener is disarmed. In other words, there is nothing especially woo-woo about her.

That afternoon, the array was brightly lit by two auxiliary lights. A camera was trained on a white wall, which was staged with a dozen potted plants. Beyond the array, out of sight, the warehouse rang with activity, reinforcing my impression of being on a Hollywood back lot.

“What’s up with the stage lights?” I asked Katrina.

She explained that they were preparing for a virtual “laying-in ceremony” that would take place that afternoon. I wasn’t allowed to attend. In fact, because of COVID-19 restrictions, they almost didn’t let me visit the facility at all. But even in non-COVID times, the warehouse is short on bathrooms and not really set up for public visitation, another reason they plan on moving to a larger facility. For now, if families want a ceremony, they have to do it over Zoom.

Katrina called some of the staff over for introductions. Morgan Yarborough, who previously worked as a funeral director in more conventional settings, manages most of the family logistics. She’s also the in-house officiant, and would be performing the ceremony later that day. (Families can submit their own words and music, or they can request that Morgan perform something called the carbon cycle ceremony. A representative excerpt: “The plants we are using today, wood chips and straw, will cover Darby’s body, powering her transformation and releasing her molecules back into the world.”)

Megan Circle is in charge of the soil and the vessels. Her surname—like several others in this story—seems to bear the mark of predestination; in this case, the ashes-to-ashes sense of circularity. As noted in her staff bio: Megan is “the very first person in the world to be employed to usher bodies through their transformation into soil.”

Many of these details I already knew. I’d scoped out the website that morning and learned colorful factoids about each. I knew, for example, that in Megan’s former life, she worked in the wine industry, trained people in soil regeneration methods, and managed large-scale kitchens. I knew that when she wasn’t busy officiating funerals, Morgan kept rescue animals and made pen-and-ink drawings. I knew that the operations manager, Todd Maxfield-Matsumoto, used to work in bookstores, had a background in machine fabrication, founded a record label, and built droids in his spare time as a member of the R2 Builders Club. If human composting attracted a type, I suppose this was it: they all seemed to have a lot of hobbies.

A few days earlier, Megan told me, the team had transported the first five cubic yards of donated NOR soil to Bells Mountain. She loaded their trailer with one yard of compost, but when it came time to load the next, she hesitated. It was the first time the compost would be commingled, which was profound but nerve-racking. “There’s a finality to it,” she told me. It marked the dissolution of the individual and a return to the collective: “Sort of the opposite of a tombstone.”

On Bells Mountain, they off-loaded the pile in a clearing in the woods. Morgan Yarborough recited the five names of the dead. Then the living each took up a ceremonial handful of soil and placed it at the base of an alder tree. This wasn’t only symbolic of completing a single cycle of renewal, they explained. Alders are pioneer species and are often the first to colonize a clear-cut, fixing nitrogen in the soil and eventually becoming the source of the life that succeeds them.

All the while, as I listened to the staff talk beside the array, the dead were there inside their vessels. And all the while, as I listened, I was listening to something else too: a kind of ur-tone, the room sound underneath the music of our conversation. Later, when Morgan described the array of vessels as a “hotel for the dead,” someone joked that it would make a good band name, and I laughed along. Someone else mentioned a magazine venture: Better Funeral Homes and Gardens.

I was hearing and seeing Katrina, and Morgan, and the others. But it was as though I were remembering them simultaneously, remembering their voices, and the biographies I had read that morning—texts that bore the same condensed and eclectic color as an obituary.

Oh right, our certain demise. That was the sound beneath the song.

It was, of course, impossible to write this essay without reflecting on the dead people I love, and what I know of their final dispositions. Some were buried, some were cremated and scattered. Others were not so lucky. Last I heard, my grandparents’ ashes were stored in my aunt’s closet next to her cremated pets, still packed in the cardboard boxes they’d arrived in. Sean’s ashes, as I mentioned, were lost in transit. Poor Matt was first embalmed, then cremated, then buried in his urn. I did not want to be lost in the mail; or mutilated, burned, and buried; or held hostage for decades in my child’s closet. I began to feel anxious about my eventual fate, and one morning, after a restless night of battling death in my dreams, I got on the computer and signed up for Precompose, the program that allows you to pay off your future composting in installments as low as $25 a month.

Most Americans are squeamish when it comes to death, at least when it comes to considering the prospect for ourselves. This aversion to the realities of our mortal bodies might be a corollary to other historic virtues—vigor, youth, an insatiable lust for the new—but it has had the bizarre effect of stunting innovation in a consumer market that includes literally everyone on the planet. If we broach the subject at all, we do so obliquely, ideally in ways that preserve the option of avoiding death entirely—the apogee of this denial manifest in the cult of anti-aging, the promise of cryostasis and reanimation, in rumors of Walt Disney’s frozen head.

My local funeral home pitches grieving families on embalming and heavy-duty caskets as a way to protect corpses from the elements, from the “odors or other unpleasantness that accompany uncared for remains.” Such claims are common in the conventional death industry. But the notion that the dead require our protection from decomposition is a fantasy. With few exceptions—such as the continuously maintained corpse of Vladimir Lenin (going strong since 1924)—embalmed bodies break down, too. They just take longer to do so. And rather than contributing nutrients to the earth, they release carcinogens. It seems to me that the promise of protection depends on an unconscious agreement between surviving loved ones and undertakers to play make-believe. To pretend that death need not have the final word. That though we feel helpless, we are not. That we might keep our dead intact, that they are not beyond our care.

I thought paying my Precompose bill every month could serve as a kind of memento mori—a way of resisting death denial. Countless cultural traditions have supplied the living with reminders of mortality, from the baroque bone churches of Europe to the smoke hanging over the Ganges. Theravada Buddhists in Thailand meditate beside corpses as they decompose—all the while reminding themselves: “My body also has this nature.” Our poet ancestors had their refrain, timor mortis conturbat me. But what does the aging, religiously noncommittal American have? The point of keeping death in mind isn’t to dwell on the macabre. The point is to remember what we are always in danger of forgetting: life ends.

I called up a fellow Precompose customer, a seventy-six-year-old practicing psychoanalyst named Linda Wolf, and floated my memento mori idea. She was unmoved. For Linda, it had been a practical consideration, one less thing for her survivors to deal with. She said she hadn’t been very conscious of her carbon footprint throughout her life. She knew she owed “the earth back on that one,” and planned to donate her soil to Bells Mountain. It didn’t matter to her whether her loved ones had a funeral service or not. “I’m not going to be controlling things from the grave,” she said. “I’ll be busy fertilizing trees.”

“By donating your soil,” Recompose tells us, “you have the chance to be productive one last time, providing biomass and nutrients to a forest that truly needs them.” Productivity in death might be a selling point for some, but for me (and for others, I suspect) the main appeal of this new method of disposition—which is, in a way, the oldest on earth—is the opportunity to assuage our guilt and anxiety about the ecological cost of our lives. A process through which mortal fear, both for one’s own fate and the fate of the planet, might be sublimated in a single act.

The greater implications of human composting are as grand as you want to make them. In collapsing the distance between our conscious lives and certain deaths, we might live more presently. We might resume contact with the plants, animals, waters, and atmosphere we rely on to survive. We might overcome the abstractions of modernity—abstractions that have allowed us, with frightening indifference, to bring the earth and all of its inhabitants to the brink of destruction.

Of course, NOR risks the opposite effect, too. As a matter of convenience, one might be deluded into thinking their ecological sins in life could be absolved in death. Recompose claims that each person who chooses composting over conventional burial or cremation will prevent an average of one metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. According to the EPA’s calculator, that is a modest carbon payback, equal to the consumption of about ten tanks of gas. On the other hand, this is preferable to adding to the debt.

To my mind, it’s the perceptual shift that bears the greatest promise. If we begin to imagine ourselves as beneficial contributors to the earth in death, rather than as agents of sickness and damage, maybe we can start to see that possibility for our lives. Put another way: we don’t have to wait to die to make ourselves useful.

On the first warm day of spring, I drove to Bells Mountain. Its primary steward is Elliot Rasenick, a former music-festival organizer with a degree in religion. In 2019, he had been hoping to restore a seven-hundred-acre tract that his nonprofit had recently purchased. It was going to take an incredible amount of compost to rehabilitate a square mile of degraded land, and he wasn’t sure how to get it. At the same time, Katrina Spade was trying to figure out what to do with the massive amount of soil that Recompose was about to create. The partnership seemed fated.

When I arrived at Bells Mountain, Elliot emerged from a little wooden cabin, waving. He wore rubber boots and an American flag mask. We exchanged niceties about the good weather and the elk tracks I spotted by the car. He asked what I wanted to see. I said, “Everything.”

For the next few hours, we wandered around on foot. We started in the lowland conifer forest, then wound our way through a grove of ancient oaks and up a hill to a defunct rock quarry. He showed me a couple of culverts built into a stream, which he planned to have removed in the coming year, the only barriers to salmon running from the Columbia River.

Elliot was a mellow guy, and a bit of a philosopher. He told me that NOR was a fitting acronym, “a way of describing the material as something existing in a liminal state.” The soil is neither spirit nor material, he said, or else it’s both/and. Elliot shared my feeling that human composting’s greater promise is its potential to occasion a paradigm shift in our relationship to all life. If we can understand NOR soil as sacred because of its source, maybe we will begin to perceive all biomass as sacred. That might sound like hippie stuff, but it may be what’s required for our species to survive. “The climate crisis is fundamentally a soil crisis,” Elliot mused. “There is a poetry in the possibility that the death of one generation can make possible the life of the next.”

We climbed into a kind of all-terrain golf cart and began to ascend a narrow gravel road that hugged the sheer side of the mountain and scared the living shit out of me. I’d been reading about the inaugural dead for weeks, and pieces of their obituaries floated back to me, though I couldn’t necessarily remember which story belonged to whom. One painted watercolors, another knitted “clothing for people and dogs.” One spent World War II working to eliminate “social diseases” in men and kept an orange tree alive in Tallahassee “through the worst of freezes.” On earth as in the ether, their individual stories were now collective. They commingled in my mind.

We bumped along, climbing through the dense underbrush of a former clear-cut, past reed-skirted ponds you wouldn’t know were man-made. We disembarked in a battered former meadow that had been used for cattle grazing. At its edge, an old burn had cleared the view all the way to Mount Adams and the flattened majesty of Mount St. Helens, still covered in snow, brilliant against the blue.

Elliot kindly turned his back so that I could cop a squat, and the hot relief of emptying my overextended bladder while taking in this view filled me with such a love of living! All that afternoon I felt alive. Walking in the shade of trees, over dead leaves and cedar fronds. And then, in that ATV thing, with rolling waves of fear giving way to adrenaline, devouring my peanut butter and jelly sandwich with animalistic fervor. Meditating on the death you want might help you imagine the life you want. But it can also help you appreciate the life you already have.

Coming back down the mountain, we stopped in another clearing, dotted with alder saplings, and cut the engine. There it suddenly was: The pile of compost that was their bodies. The first five donated yards of NOR, so unassuming and small, under that dome of sky.

We stood before the pile in silence.

Then I said, “Wow.”

Elliot asked whether I wanted to place some of the soil at the base of an alder, as the Recompose staff had done during the ceremony.

At first I thought, No. Strangely, it seemed like an invasion of privacy to touch them. They weren’t compost to me; they were people, with hobbies, and ethical convictions, and loved ones out there somewhere still grieving. They were precious.

Then it occurred to me that it was precisely this feeling that equipped me for the task.

I dug my upturned hands into the mound and lifted the soil into the sunlight. It looked and smelled exactly like the forest floor.