Human composting facilities offer unique burial option in Colorad

A 50,000-square-foot warehouse housed in a gray, nondescript building in Montbello sat empty Thursday, but by mid-next year, it will be transformed into the latest — and largest — Denver-area facility where human bodies can be composted.

The building will have places where families can hold ceremonies for their loved ones, the design of the gathering spaces highlighting forests and woods around Colorado. The walls will be painted with calming colors and families can choose to play music that their loved ones enjoyed. There will also be a separate area with vessels and equipment where the composting will take place.

The idea is that even though composting is methodical, industrialized and even utilitarian, there’s also a tenderness involved in the process, said Recompose founder Katrina Spade. Recompose, based in Washington, will be leasing the warehouse at 5400 Joliet St.

The Colorado Legislature passed a law last year that made natural organic human reduction — composting — a legal after-death care option. The human remains can be turned into soil and used for planting (as long as it won’t be used for food for human consumption) or be donated to conservation efforts. The company that began this method of after-death disposition in Washington is now bringing its operations to Denver, growing the movement to make this a more common option for Coloradans.

Spade helped Colorado after-death operators work to pass the legislation, making it the second in the nation to do so. Since then, others have followed suit, including most recently, California.

About 10 years ago, Spade was thinking about her own mortality and wanted to find a more sustainable way to dispose of human bodies after death. Unlike in green burials, the system she invented speeds up the process, using plant materials, microbes and heat to turn a person into about a truck bed worth of soil in a month. The material is then screened to remove nonorganic materials and leftover bone fragments, and then it gets cured for two to four weeks and the soil dries.

“I never really wanted it to be just a niche option or available to just a few people,” Spade said. “My dream is that this would be a default choice for people (that) you wouldn’t even have to give too much thought to it because it benefits the planet, and it’s respectful and I think beautiful.”

Spade envisions that the facility will ultimately have 200 vessels set up for bodies to be turned into soil (50 to start), and each vessel can hold up to one person per month. The ratio of alfalfa to wood chips to straw differs depending on the makeup of a person, and microbes break down the body. The Denver facility will be an option for people who are closer to Colorado in other states who won’t have to send bodies to Washington or other states that may be farther away. Fifteen percent of the clients who have sent bodies to Recompose in Washington are from other states, Spade said.

Colorado started offering the option for people to turn their bodies into soil in the state last year — The Natural Funeral started composting bodies in September of last year for four Colorado funeral homes and six funeral homes outside the state. Thirty-four people have gone through the Arvada operation, 28 from Colorado, according to co-owner Seth Viddal. The facility has 24 fully operational vessels and 15 curing bins (where the soil goes after decomposition to dry out and sift through bones and other fragments).

Natural Funeral also offers green burials, flame cremation and water cremation.

The process at Natural Funeral works a little differently than Recompose and other operators, Viddal said, because it doesn’t use any mechanical or electrical acceleration processes and no heat, just plant material and a brewed biodynamic composting tea. That’s why that process takes three to four months or so.

Anthony Leavitt of Wheat Ridge sent his husband Jake’s body to Washington in October of last year, before the process was readily accessible in Colorado, he said. Leavitt worked with Feldman Mortuary in Colorado and Return Home in Washington.

Jake Leavitt had been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2019 and began researching after-death care options. At first, he thought he wanted to be cremated before he found out the negative effects it has on the environment.

When Leavitt heard about the new law in Colorado, he told his husband that’s what he wanted. But that’s where the conversation ended — they wanted to spend the rest of their time together living in the moment. So after Jake Leavitt died, Anthony Leavitt began contacting people in Washington to see how he could transfer Jake’s body there.

It was perfect — Jake loved gardening, getting his hands in the dirt, being outside and generally making the world more beautiful, his husband said.

After Jake was transported to Washington and went through the composting process, some of the soil was sent back to Anthony and family, while the rest was donated for conservation. Anthony plans to put some of that soil in cactuses that Jake had planted and then give them to family and friends. He also plans to go back to California where Jake is from and plant some trees in his honor.

“It was the most meaningful solution for Jake, and to me, that was all that mattered,” he said. “He didn’t want to be a burden on the planet. He didn’t want to be a burden on future generations. He didn’t want his body to be stuck in the ground so it can’t be used.”

And Anthony noted, it helped that it was a reasonably-priced option, under $8,000 — something Jake would have appreciated.

“I would have paid anything to take care of Jake,” Anthony said. “But the fact that it was so economical it was a shock.”

Alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, costs about $4,500 and fire cremation $3,000 and up. Burials are more costly, depending on cemetery plot purchases.

Both Anthony and Jake are private people, Anthony said, but Jake would have loved knowing his story helped others. Now, Anthony plans to use this option after his death as do other friends and family members.

Viddal, who was part of the group advocating for the state legislation to pass, said he’s excited about Recompose coming to Denver, adding that it “represents a great amount of progress in terms of public awareness because they’re such a nationally known force in this field of natural reduction, there’s a lot of eyes on them and what they’re doing.”

“I believe that it’s going to empower a lot more Coloradans to choose natural reduction,” Viddal said.

Feldman Mortuary is one of the Colorado funeral homes that contracts with Viddal’s company. Jamie Sarche, director of prearranged funeral planning and aftercare, said two people have gone through them for human composting and about 12 people have prearranged for the method.

Sarche said she’s glad that this option is available, particularly because of the misconception that fire cremation is environmentally friendly — it’s not and actually ends in tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

“With green burial, we’re not adding any chemicals to the earth, and it is composting, and it is a very natural way to take care of a body,” Sarche said.

People should start planning ahead for after-death options, Sarche said, and she’s glad Recompose and others are making that available for Coloradans.

“The more people who start doing this, the better off we’ll be,” she said. “And our earth needs us to be taking care of it in a better way. The less we fire cremate, the better off our earth will be.”

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