Recompose Offers a Sustainable Alternative to the Death Care Industry

An interview with Katrina Spade | Founder and CEO, Recompose

Katrina has been an entrepreneur and designer since 2002. She has over 15 years of experience in project management, finance, and architecture, with a focus on human-centered, ecological solutions. While earning her Masters of Architecture, Katrina invented a system to transform the dead into soil, which is now patent-pending. In 2014, she founded the 501c3 Urban Death Project to bring attention to the problem of a toxic, dis-empowering funeral industry. In 2017, she founded Recompose, a Public Benefit Corporation. Today, she shares with us how her organization is improving the relationship people have with death and dying.

How is your organization innovating around the end-of-life experience?

Recompose is a new model of death care that facilitates a deeper connection with nature and invites a more conscious relationship with death. At its heart is a patent-pending system which gently transforms bodies into soil.

We hope that for some, this option will be almost spiritual — an ecological, productive, and beautiful thing to do with our physical bodies after we’ve died.

One of our core tenets is that each of us has the capacity to care for a loved one who has died. It’s a basic human act, and in the olden days everyone participated. As well, we believe that the act of caring for a loved one’s body can be incredibly empowering. So as part of the Recompose model, families are encouraged to participate in the care and preparation of the body, alongside our staff.

By Peter Bucks on Unsplash

What are your priorities in this work?

Right now, we’re finishing a pilot with researchers at Washington State University, to demonstrate that recomposition is safe and sustainable. We’re drafting a bill in Washington State, which will make recomposition (the conversion of human remains to soil) a legal option for disposition. And we are in the early design stages of Recompose|SEATTLE, the first place in the world where folks will be able to be Recomposed.

One of our main priorities is getting to know funders who are heart-aligned, and who may want to invest in our work. It’s an exciting time!

If you could wave a magic wand, what would appear?

Oooh, I want a magic wand! I’d order up fresh funeral laws (for every state) that expand death care options and scrub out all of the archaic junk we currently have to deal with.

And a big lovely warehouse space for Recompose|SEATTLE.

And oodles of funding so that we can begin opening Recompose Centers all over the world, and create a toolkit to help others do the same.

And some dill pickles, my favorite food.

Whom do you consider part of the “positive conspiracy” in your efforts to transform the consumer end-of-life experience?

So many groups are working on end-of-life issues, it’s just an awesome time to be doing this. Some of my favorites are the “death with dignity” folks, whom I consider to be doing the most challenging work in terms of cultural shifting. “Death Doulas” have been practicing much of what Recompose plans to offer in terms of ritual and end-of-life consciousness for decades. And academics like Tanya Marsh are helping consumers understand why the funeral industry is the way it is (spoiler alert: it is not due to some centuries-old cultural tradition.)

Finally, a shout out to my sister Julie Bernstein in Portland, who is a physician assistant in geriatric medicine at OHSU. Her team is protecting older patients from some of the most common complications that can occur in the hospital setting, and making sure that end-of-life goals are always part of the conversation.

What advice would you give to other leaders interested in changing the end-of-life experience?

I’d say: be bold! If you have an idea that you are sure will positively impact even 3% of the population when it comes to their end-of-life experience, make it happen.

Death is such a personal thing, and it’s also universal. In my mind, that makes us ALL experts when it comes to the event. There’s no wrong way to go about the end-of-life, as long as it’s framed with consciousness, compassion, and empathy.

In your organization’s long-range planning (3–5 years out), what does the end-of-life experience feel like to a consumer and his or her circle of caregivers?

For the dying person, we hope the opportunity to be recomposed will be a source of comfort, satisfaction…maybe even joy. It’s a chance to be productive one final time, to give back to the earth that’s sustained us all our lives.

For the circle of caregivers, we want to provide a sense of empowerment, and a ritual that feels authentic. And of course, friends and family will be able to take the soil created and grow a tree or nourish a garden.

Katrina Spade has a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been featured in the Guardian, NPR, Wired, Fast Company, and the NYTimes. She is an Echoing Green Fellow.

Special thank you to our partners at Medecision for making this project possible.