A Ritual of Restoration and Revitalization
On Easter weekend, 2023, I took part in a powerful ritual of restoration, revitalization, and perhaps even resurrection.
I travelled to Bell’s Mountain, in southwest Washington state, to help spread the composted remains of 160 people.
Expanding population and the climate crisis are forcing us to rethink everything, including how we dispose of the bodies of our dead. Cremation feels tidy and simple, but it uses an enormous amount of energy and releases mercury and other toxins into the air. Green burial is low-impact, but requires so much land that it’s unfeasible in urban settings. Human composting, or Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), is an inspiring new option which uses 1/8 the energy of cremation, and also sequesters carbon in the soil.
The technology for NOR comes from the livestock industry, where animal bodies are composted in large piles that generate enough heat to completely break them down. Innovator Katrina Spade and others in the human composting field have worked hard to adapt that process, and to make it legal and available to dying people and their families.
Recompose, the composting facility in Seattle started by Katrina and her colleagues, is centered around a wall of body-sized drawers which are lined with wood chips and other organic matter. A body is layered in organic cotton fabric, laid on the wood chips and covered with flowers and other greenery. The drawer is closed, oxygen is circulated through the system, and the natural microbes do their work. In a month, the body, including pathogens, pharmaceuticals, chemotherapy drugs, and most of the bones, is broken down. The larger bone fragments are broken up, the compost, or NOR, is screened and cured, and then it’s ready to be returned to the earth.
Including the added organic matter, a body produces about one cubic yard of NOR. Some families bring all of this home and spread it in their garden, others take only a small container. Recompose delivers what remains to Beloved Emergence, a 700-acre community project near Bell’s Mountain, stewarded by Elliot Rasenick and his team. Beloved Emergence is, as their website says, “An unfolding of collaborative visions in service to ecological restoration, regenerative agriculture, grief tending and land-based healing.” Just my kind of place!
A Facebook friend invited me to attend the first ritual returning of the compost to the land, facilitated by mythologist Michael Meade. I jumped at the chance and so, on a chilly grey morning, a friend and I drove the windy road through the Beloved Emergence land, passing reforestation projects on the hillsides and watersheds along the way.
We arrived to find a couple of dozen people, a tent with tea and snacks, a collection of wheelbarrows, shovels, and rakes, and several large piles of NOR. The NOR looked like it could have come from the local garden center, but it felt very different. It was the mortal remains of some of the first people in the world to have had their bodies composted.
As Michael pointed out, the name NOR unintentionally describes the hard-to-pin-down nature of human compost. It’s neither/nor. Or maybe it’s both/and.
NOR is neither human, nor not-human. It’s both sacred and mundane. On one hand, it’s simple soil, chemically indistinguishable from any other compost. On the other hand, it was once a human body. And human remains have spiritual significance.
We began the morning with a ceremony to honour the spiritual significance of the NOR. Michael helped us get grounded in our bodies, and with the land, and led us a song to invoke the ancestors. He talked about the ritual value of what we were going to do, and what it meant to be doing this for the very first time.
Ritual practices are like grooves in the record of consciousness. The more we do a particular ritual, the deeper the grooves are carved, the easier it is to align with the energy of that ritual, and the more powerful and effective the ritual action becomes.
Human composting is a fundamentally new way of disposing of a dead body, and while we’ve made great strides in developing the physical technology, it’s going to take some time before we find our way into the appropropriate accompanying ritual response. How do we deal, physically, spiritually, and ritually, with this material that is so both/and, so neither/nor?
Our ritual at Bell’s Mountain was the beginning of that exploration, and it was rooted in the foundational and reciprocal relationship between death and life. The death of the people whose bodies had been composted was giving life to the new plants that would grow out of their compost.
We began by sprinkling the area with wildflower seeds.
We are made of the landscape. At conception, our life force energy enters this dimension, and the elements coalesce around us, creating our body. All through our life, we are made and remade by earth, air, fire, and water.
Our bodies are on loan from the land, and when we die, it’s time to return what has been leant to us. Modern body disposition practices, however, tend to keep us out of circulation, rather than returning us to the cycle of life. Toxic embalming and concrete vaults prevent the natural decomposing forces from reaching many buried bodies, and cremation use precious fossil fuels to combust the parts of us that could most easily feed the soil.
Human composting is a scalable, low tech, low impact way to give back to the earth that gives us so much. It allows us to give our composted bodies as our final offering, our final gesture of gratitude and closure in this world. It’s a healing and meaningful physical practice, and it was exciting to be part of developing a healing and meaningful ritual practice to accompany it.
After scattering the seeds, we began the wheelbarrow portion of the ritual. This was the getting-your-hands-dirty part, and an unequivocal reminder that these were piles of rich, loamy, dese physical soil.
We shoveled, and wheeled, and raked, and talked, and laughed. We broke for a lunch of hearty soup and bread. We connected over our common interests in living and dying, and we slowly returned the bodies of 160 pioneering people to the land. As the living have always done for the dead, we gave back what they had borrowed, and we did it with grace and gratitude.
It took several hours, and by the end of the day, the piles of NOR were almost gone, woven back into the fabric of the landscape. We gathered again in our ritual circle, and with more drumming and singing, we closed the day, having, as the Beloved Emergence website states, “Situated Death in its proper place as the foundation for all life.”
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