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Podcast: #29 Human Composting?! With Brie Smith from Return Home

Listen and learn as funeral director Brie Smith and I discuss Natural Organic Reduction – or “Terramation.”

Get a look behind the sensational headlines of “human composting” and find out more about how this got started, first in WA state and now in CO and OR. How did it begin? What’s the process and what’s the science? How does Return Home support families through this gentle, new process of body disposition? What is the end result? And what is Brie’s answer to the common comment, “We seem to be running out of space to bury people.”

The funeral home Brie works for, Return Home, serves people in all 50 states and offers this new alternative to burial for everyone to consider. If this is new to you – like it was to me – I think you’ll really appreciate the clarity with which Brie and I discuss the ins and outs of Terramation.

Spoiler: this is a tactile, organic, earth-creating process!

Transcription below:

[00:00:00] Diane Hullet: Hi, welcome to the best life. Best Steph podcast. I’m Diane Hollet. You can find out more about the work I do at best life. Best I’ve got a special guest here today that I’m very excited about. Brie Smith of return home has joined me hybrid.

[00:00:25] Brie Smith: Hello, Diane. Thank you for having me today.

[00:00:28] Diane Hullet: I think this is going to be a really interesting conversation because Brie and I are going to talk about something that’s sort of new to the field of end of life.

[00:00:35] At least in my mind. It’s new. Breal tell us a little about the history. So we’re talking about human composting also known as natural organic reduction. Are there other names that goes by or are those the two main.

[00:00:49] Brie Smith: Yeah. So legally it’s known as natural organic reduction. I would say the layman considers that human composting, because that is what we’re doing here.

[00:00:58] We call it Terra mation [00:01:00] because we feel like it fits what already exists in the industry. Um, I come from the funeral industry personally, over a decade of, um, of my life has been given to serving family. So for me, uh, human composting is a little rough. I don’t tell families I’m going to go and send her.

[00:01:17] Their loved ones. So, you know, I, we all, as a team kind of decided that earth, uh, transformation, Tara mation, it just kind of came and felt natural.

[00:01:27] Diane Hullet: I love that. I love that. Like Tara of the earth, or like there now this other thing that we’ll talk about another time is acclimation, right? So that’s like water or you’re right.

[00:01:37] We don’t use such a rough term. So, um, I love that. So how did you get into this? How did return home get into this? Give us a little history.

[00:01:47] Brie Smith: Yeah. So I received a phone call from the CEO, Micah, who I was actually at my other job, uh, on the cemetery grounds at the time. And he said, I’ve got this crazy thing to show you.

[00:01:59] [00:02:00] And I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this, but I want you to meet me at a warehouse in Auburn. And I want to show you what I’m doing. And fortunately, I had heard Mike his name in the space before, um, I was actually seeking him to do a presentation. For the district that I am the president of for the state association.

[00:02:18] So I had heard of Mike, I came to the warehouse and, um, it was four white walls and he kind of walked me around and showed me what to expect and where, but what really moved me was at the end, he showed me, um, what had been tested at. Pig compost, because we did all of our testing on pigs and I’m a gardener.

[00:02:38] I love plants kind of obsessive, probably a little bit. And so my first initial instinct was to put my hands in it and then like smell it and like, cause I’m that girl. Um, so yeah, I, I did that. I was blown away. It was odorless or just smelled really mild of like earth and maybe like a mushroom might smell and, um, seeing.[00:03:00]

[00:03:00] The the body and the microbes in the body were really made to transform us back into earth as somebody who loves her physiology and biology. Um, I was immediately questioned everything I was doing in that moment and said, why wasn’t I doing this before?

[00:03:18] Diane Hullet: Wow, fascinating. It seems like it, it sort of got going almost maybe 10 years ago as an idea.

[00:03:25] And then this, it first became legal in Washington state and then Colorado and Oregon. Is that right? So it’s legal in three states. And what’s, what’s the process? What, what would, what would one expect if you call return home and say, my beloved one just died and I’d like to work with this process? How does it go?

[00:03:45] Yeah,

[00:03:46] Brie Smith: so it’s important to distinguish the fact that we’re all different right now. So, um, you know, mortuaries work very much the same as in the crematorium. It’s very similar. Uh, the way we involve. Similar, but every [00:04:00] natural organic rejection provider right now is completely different in our science and in how we actually transform the body into soil.

[00:04:08] So, um, we’ve taken a great deal of pride in our ability to serve all 50 states plus Canada. Um, we can, uh, and what we do is we transport people, um, via. That’s how people are transported. Uh, every single day, actually you may have even been on a plane where have been a couple of people. So, um, it’s very commonplace and there’s very intense infrastructure there that allows us the ability to UNIM unembalmed ship people to Washington state.

[00:04:36] And then we work out with the family, how to return the soil or the compost back to them. Um, myself and Katie are funeral directors. Uh, a combined about 25 years of experience. So we have a great deal of knowledge and guiding people through, uh, every single step of the process. And we’re very high touch.

[00:04:57] So, um, you can expect a good deal of [00:05:00] communication and, uh, things moving at a. Good clips and at your pace and at not maybe a rushed pace compared to what you maybe have experienced with the funeral home previously. So we just try to acknowledge that, um, our process takes anywhere from 60 to 90 days, the body is left to do what it was made to do, and we don’t, uh, agitator or, you know, push it forward.

[00:05:24] And we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Right. Um, so ultimately we give the family their time. Because we’re not in a rush.

[00:05:32] Diane Hullet: Right. Interesting. So the body arrives. And then do you have kind of a space where these, um, I assume there’s some kind of a vessel or a yeah. Pod or what, what do you call it? It returned home.

[00:05:45] Brie Smith: We have vessels and we have a two phase process. So our vessels. Eight feet by three and a half feet by three and a half feet. And when someone arrives in our facility, once we get the proper permitting, we placed them in a vessel. And the [00:06:00] only thing that’s inside the vessel are like oxygen, intakes, and outputs.

[00:06:04] Um, we put straw alfalfa and. At about a three to one ratio to that person’s body weight, we place half the organics down. We lay the person right on top of that bed of organics in a compostable garment. Um, we bathed every single person who comes into our care and we give them a garment, um, to, you know, keep their dignity and keep them covered.

[00:06:25] Uh, and then the rest of the. Uh, organics go on top of the person and the vessel is closed and placed in our front of house where people, um, we are, the largest scale was 74 vessels. And also the only facility that’s open to the public. So once the person has placed on our, uh, vessel racking system, their family can come in and see their loved one.

[00:06:48] Whenever they. Wow.

[00:06:50] Diane Hullet: Fascinating. And, and about what, what’s the outcome, you know, 60 to 90 days later. And when you say 60 to 90, does someone check or is there some [00:07:00] kind of technology that’s like checking the heat or something? I can imagine, like when you turn a compost pile and you’re waiting for it to really hit.

[00:07:07] Vital organic point.

[00:07:10] Brie Smith: We’re very highly monitored by the state of Washington. So that’s the good news is that we are required to have, um, there’s expectations put on us. And, and what we have is, uh, very, very. Uh, dialed science that is constantly monitored. So 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we can monitor the oxygen, the temperature and the air flow and the water and moisture level that are inside of each individual vessel.

[00:07:37] And we can see them individually. So, um, that was really important to our process specifically was that, um, everything is done separately. And so we can really monitor each individual and let their body go at the rate that. Would go in nature, but just in an accelerated place.

[00:07:55] Diane Hullet: Right. Cause I can imagine when you say that shirt, different sizes, different compositions, [00:08:00] like everyone would be a little different.

[00:08:01] And then at the end, what’s the, what’s the outcome? What, what does about 500? What comes out and what do you do with it?

[00:08:10] Brie Smith: Yeah. Yeah. So we ended up with about 500 pounds of very, um, fine, beautiful. Like I said, older lists, usable compost, um, essentially. That’s what moves me the most about what we do is I was so used to either with a burial, not returning anything to a family or with a cremation, I’m returning a little box of essentially a ground bone, which is exactly what it is actually, but it’s, it’s charred carbon and I’m just returning this and I’m not asking why.

[00:08:41] Um, what’s amazing is, is we end up with about 500 pounds. The family can take as much as they want. And then if they do. Um, and have space in their more urban environment. Maybe we have a Greenbelt location. That’s just a 10 minute drive north of our facility to keep our footprint rolled low and we can scatter their loved [00:09:00] ones on that, uh, Greenbelt that can never be developed upon in perpetuity.

[00:09:04] So, um, it is a place that we cleared of a lot of junk and garbage and a couple of abandoned vehicles. And now, uh, we cleaned and are scattering people there to revitalize the local flora in that. Um, and what we find with families is when we do return the compost to the family, one of their first reactions is to, um, like hug because we give them in little burlap bags.

[00:09:28] Um, so they’ll like hug the burlap and like, love on it. Or I’ve had people just take the, you know, little twine that we have around it, just rip it off. And they actually like put their hands inside of the soil and like smell. And do what I did. And so that tells me that there’s something really innate and, and really.

[00:09:50] Um, it’s something that hasn’t really ever been offered in a way that it’s tangible because we love green burial to here. It’s [00:10:00] a wonderful disposition method. And actually my preferred before I started here, um, I’m a green burial girl. I would just say that seeing people be able to like run their hands through their loved ones, uh, Tara mated remains is just so moving.

[00:10:15] And the tangibility is meaningless.

[00:10:17] Diane Hullet: So tactile. Like I can see, like you said, the smell and the feel and the real sense. And so even bones, like even a big bone, like the femur or something will, um, turn to the soil and that amount of time. So,

[00:10:30] Brie Smith: what we do is in our facility, we have, like I said, separate stations.

[00:10:35] So we don’t, uh, you know, mess with the body at all in the initial stage. But what happens is, is there’s a screening stage that happens between phase one and phase two, where that person has completely transformed into soil, but their bone remains the same way it does after a cremation or after,

[00:10:53] Diane Hullet: or after a

[00:10:53] Brie Smith: green burial.

[00:10:55] Exactly. So what we do is we have an area in our facility where a [00:11:00] experienced crematory operators like myself and Katie and Chris, um, we append the vessel. We take any inorganics out. So that would be, you know, stints and replacements and screws and things like. The silicone that exists in the body. Um, so we remove all of those things and those, those get recycled as much as can be.

[00:11:20] And then we, uh, at that time break the bone down very similarly to how they do in cremation. And what happens is, is because that bone, it, it almost comes out fluffy. And what that does. Chorus. And it exposes the microbes to the inside of the bone, which is poorest and consumable. And so over the second phase, which is about a 30 day resting or curing for that compost, the microbes are able to consume the bone and we end up with something that’s completely.

[00:11:50] Yeah, just integrated and seamless.

[00:11:53] Diane Hullet: Wow. Fascinating. This is so fascinating to me. And I wonder what, like, what do [00:12:00] people love about it? I mean, you talked about the tactile quality and the, the sense of smell in the sense of returning to the earth. What do, why do people choose.

[00:12:09] Brie Smith: I think at the beginning when we talked to people, um, a lot of them have a lot of hesitation toward embalming.

[00:12:18] That’s something we find very frequently. Um, I’m a licensed embalmer and I’ve been in bombing people for a very long time. And I actually understand why people feel that way. And there’s a reason I didn’t want to be embalmed. Um, So, you know, I think there’s that, I think there’s the idea that some people really don’t like fire, quite frankly.

[00:12:35] They don’t like the idea of their body, um, being present in one moment. And then over the course of two hours being completely Ash, um, it’s really kind of a volatile environment, quite frankly, as somebody, uh, in the Northwest, we have about a 90% cremation rate and I was a crematory operator very regularly.

[00:12:54] And so I have a ton of experience and can attest to. It’s [00:13:00] abrasiveness. And I think people are very drawn to how gentle our processes because. Again, we just lay the person in the vessel and then we do have an external rotator. So a couple of weeks into the process, we begin weekly rotations of the vessel, but we just let the body do its thing and it’s not constantly agitated and it’s just resting and that’s appealing to some people.

[00:13:22] So,

[00:13:23] Diane Hullet: so incredible. What is the cost like? How does the cost compare? Is it less or more.

[00:13:29] Brie Smith: Yeah, we cost $5,000, 4,950 to be exact. And um, what we do is depending on where the person passes away, we work with local funeral homes or funeral service providers, and we always try to adjust our pricing to help the family accommodate additional charges.

[00:13:46] So. What we do is if they pass away in Washington state, it’s that amount within 75 miles of our facility. And then we charge per loaded mile if they’re outside of that 75 miles. [00:14:00] And then if they have to be shipped, we work with the local funeral home and with the family. And, um, and our fees for receiving, you know, a lot of funeral homes have forwarding and receiving fees, um, are included in our chair animations.

[00:14:14] So we try to make it as easy on the family as possible. And then, uh, the shipping fees for like the Terra mated remains afterwards are just their own kind of animal, but you can find it all on our website at www dot return home.

[00:14:28] Diane Hullet: Fabulous for more info. Um, how do you, how does this co you know, coordinate with a service?

[00:14:34] If a family wants this process, the, the, the person who’s dying says, this is what I choose. And the family’s on board. Everybody says, yes. How does this coordinate with a service? I mean, I can see if you live in your area, that might be easy, but are there creative ways people have memorialized. Don a Memorial service might be the better term

[00:14:55] Brie Smith: will be because we’re the only facility open to the public.

[00:14:58] We take a great deal of [00:15:00] pride in being able to have people come visit and see their loved one in the vessel. Um, I’m doing a laying in ceremony this afternoon with the family and we have a lot of families take us up on it because they get the opportunity to come in and inside the vessel, we can put anything organic, anything.

[00:15:17] Plants or flowers or, you know, um, we had a family bring in a bottle of Bailey’s the other day and they like poured Bailey’s in there, um, because their mom loved Bailey’s or, you know, uh, I’ve had people bring in a cake that was frozen for like 40 years from their wedding and they leave that in there. So if it’s ingestible or, uh, compostable, essentially it can go in the vessel with their loved one.

[00:15:40] And then we also, because you can see our vessels, give people the opportunity. To decorate the outside of the vessel so that when they visit again, they can identify which vessel is their loved ones. Um, and right now we have two veterans who have flags draped over their vessels. So, um, we see memorialization in different ways.[00:16:00]

[00:16:00] We’re also high touch in the way that we encourage people at the beginning to be involved throughout. So we give everybody a Beth and that means if you want to be present while we give your mother a bath, or you want to give your mother a bath and to just have us be kind of helping you in present, um, we want you to have that ability.

[00:16:18] If you want to bring your loved one, uh, a family, we were. Drove their son from California because he had never been on a plane before and she couldn’t bear to put him on a plane for the first time. He was afraid of it. She didn’t want to do that. So his mother drove him from California, so it gives me goosebumps.

[00:16:35] Um, we see these beautiful memorialization, but it’s more than that. It’s more than just a service. It’s really taking people by the hand and guiding them through their grief and them at the end of our process, being able to see new. Be given by their loved one and continuing that, that the circle of life and the way that they see new growth.

[00:16:59] Diane Hullet: [00:17:00] Beautiful. Beautiful. I love that. Just that it is a full circle process that you’re you’re offering on every. It’s kind of a traditional funeral home with a, with a different outcome for the body. Just a very different approach. I wonder if there, if anyone will, um, say, well, I, we want to do this for my loved one, and then we want to take that dirt and put it at a cemetery with a headstone.

[00:17:20] You know, I wonder if anybody will ultimately do that. You

[00:17:24] Brie Smith: have, so we actually are coordinating it right now. And so, you know, there’s still a way for people to have that space if they want it. And just between you and I, as somebody who’s done an extensive research on the subject, we’re not really running out of space to put people that’s kind of.

[00:17:40] I mean, we’ve got a lot of earth still left, but what’s the problem is, is there’s no organic matter being returned to the earth unless you’re choosing that green burial. So, so there is earth it’s just organic matter needs to be placed back into the earth. And so we actually have. Uh, have an idea that some point to [00:18:00] have a scattering garden right now, our Memorial park is not manned.

[00:18:04] There’s not people there regularly, so we can’t invite families there and it also can never be developed upon. So there’s no restrooms or walkways. Um, but we have the idea of like a scattering garden at some point with rocks or something that can still hold a place for people, because a lot of people want a place to go.

[00:18:21] Diane Hullet: So I could totally see this evolving into. Based on a place on a park, that’s a managed park, but with very different fees and very different, um, management than a traditional

[00:18:33] Brie Smith: cemetery, I think so. Yeah. And I, I see a whole bunch of wonderful, sustainable things in our future. So return homes excited to be, uh, a green funeral home and expand what that means.

[00:18:46] As far as, you know, we offer Tara mation and that’s what we specialize in. Um, but I’d love to also have the ability just to play someone in a shroud in the ground. So.

[00:18:56] Diane Hullet: Incredible. Thank you so much, Bree. I think this has been so [00:19:00] informative for listeners. It’s just, it’s something we read about and it’s a little bit of a sensational headline, I think when people put it out, but, and, and the lay term, body composting, how, you know, how do you kind of make that shift to seeing this as really Tara mation or natural organic reduction?

[00:19:16] These, these terms that, as you said, aren’t quite so. I dunno, um, raw in some ways. So I really appreciate this discussion. Um, you can find out more about Bree at return or breeze work. Um, the work of return home at return, They are based up near Seattle and Washington state. And, um, as she said, they’re available for people who live anywhere.

[00:19:38] So pretty incredible. Um, thanks Bree for joining.

[00:19:42] Brie Smith: Thank you, Diana. It was such an honor to be here and I’ll come back anytime. So

[00:19:46] Diane Hullet: wonderful. We’ve got, I think we’ve got lots to talk about and I’d love to kind of see where this is in another year or two as

[00:19:51] Brie Smith: to.

[00:19:53] Diane Hullet: Thanks again. I’m Diane Hollet and you’ve been listening to the best life, best death podcast.

[00:19:58] Thanks for joining me.[00:20:00] .

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.

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