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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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2022/2/18 Last Acts

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America’s New Green Undertakers:
Crushing the Carbon Footprint of Last Acts

WT Interview with Micah Truman and Katey Houston of Return Home.

WT staff

WT: I have on the phone with me, Katey Houston and Micah Truman from Return Home, can you tell us a bit about yourselves, who you are, and what you do?

Katey Houston: I am Services Manager at Return Home. I get to help families as they take their loved ones through our “terramation” process.

Micah Truman: I am the founder and CEO of Return Home. I started the company in January 2019 and worked with the teams to develop the (terramation) process and to bring on the services team. We are now actively serving families.

WT: Can you tell me what you do and why you do it?

Truman: Our process gently turns human remains into soil, which is just the way nature always wanted to do it, the way nature operates. We simply do it faster. The reason we do this, traditional cremation and burial are quite toxic to the earth, and given that everybody dies, it’s absolutely important we develop processes so that our last act is one that gives back. That is why we exist.

WT: You are saying the processes used in final arrangements are toxic, can you explain how funerals are toxic?

Truman: There are two processes in common use. Burial involves digging a hole, lining that hole with rebar and cement; we then place the body in a gasketed coffin, most of the time the body is embalmed with formaldehyde, which is a toxic substance; the body is placed in the casket, the casket is placed in the cement-lined hole, and there we are, leaching poison into the earth. That is a real issue on the burial side.

In our county, King County in Seattle, 90% of our decedents are cremated. Cremation of a body typically involves about 30 gallons of fuel, enough to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back; it blows all the things our bodies could give the earth into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases (GHGs) leaving us with a handful of charred carbon. Those are the two methods (of disposal).

It’s, for this reason, we think an alternative is important.

WT: This question is for Katey. When someone is in this really sad situation, how does it work? Do they call you and let you know their person is deceased, and you take it from there? Can you give my readers a sense of the protocols involved, what needs to be said and done, and some of the less obvious parts of what you do?

Houston: We are a fully licensed funeral home, and I am a licensed funeral director, so we can take people from the very beginning of their (final) journey right to the end. So that means, they would call us to report that a death has happened, or they could call us in the days leading up if they know the death is going to happen, and we would take it all the way from picking the person up from where they passed away, filing the death certificate, making sure the family can spend time with their person either at the place of death or at our facility and creating ritual around our process that satisfies that family’s need.

WT: Do people come to you because they see this as a greener process, or do they come to you because this is what the deceased wanted? I am trying to understand the drivers, how the people are thinking.

Houston: I think a little bit all over the place. I think people have picked this for themselves, knowing that they wanted to give back to the place they live, or they want their family to have a more meaningful journey. We also have families who have picked this (process) for their mother because they believe this is better for the planet, and this is what that person would have wanted, or this is what they want for their person. They come to us specifically because they now understand that the other options are not great for the planet, and our process is great for the planet.

WT: From your website, you describe your process Phase I “Laying In”. Can you tell us what this is?

Houston: That is the first thirty days of the process, however, it starts with the family, whether they choose to be at our facility (or not). They can be there when their person is placed into their vessel, they can have a gathering of people to say their last goodbye; they can place what they wish in the vessel as long as it's compostable. We have had candy, cake, flowers, all kinds of different things placed in the vessel, and then the rest of the organic material is placed in the vessel, which is straw, alfalfa, sawdust, and then the vessel goes into our racking system and stays there for thirty days. The body does exactly what it is made to do, which is, return to earth.

WT: In Phase II, your website says oxygen flows through the vessel which stimulates microbes in the body. Why do you need oxygen pumped into the vessel, and what do the microbes have to do with this story?

Truman: We don’t pump oxygen into the vessel. This is a process that draws oxygen into the vessel naturally. The amazing thing about this process is it doesn’t require outside intervention, just like fire doesn’t require oxygen to be pumped in. Our process is aerobic, which means it requires oxygen, and the microbes in our body, it’s kind of magic, the ones that digest the food we eat, are also the ones that return us, transform us back to the earth. Our process simply allows the microbes in our body, that naturally transform us, to do it much faster; a process that involves oxygen, moisture, and heat. All of these are a natural result of the “terramation” process that we run.

WT: Phase III of this is Curing. Curing doesn’t apply to the burial industry, can you explain how this applies to your process?

Houston: I prefer to call this phase “Resting”. It’s another phase of thirty days. This is where the compost gets to rest, it cools down, it gets to off-gas a little bit, and then it’s ready to go back to the family. It’s just a phase where now that the body has transformed, the compost is just getting ready to be returned, basically.

WT: Then the last phase is “Life Grows On”. What I understand here is that I get my deceased back to me, there is soil in a burlap bag, and that’s the compost of the body? Am I reading this right?

Houston: You are reading that correctly. What you get back is about 500lbs of compost, and that is because at the beginning of the process we add the organic matter, straw, alfalfa sawdust at about a three to one ratio, organics to body weight. So, you are getting 500 pounds back. You can take as little or as much as you want. We package it beautifully in these burlap sacks adorned with a leaf-shaped name tag of the person. You can take anywhere from a five-pound amount to the full amount. What you don’t choose to take we have a green belt location, ten minutes from our facility that needed some revitalization. We purchased that so we had a place for people to go back to the local area.

WT: How much does the process cost?

Houston: Our total fee is $4950, within 75 miles of our facility, with everything you would need, including the death certificate. In the case of Canada, the extra fee would be the cost of shipping to us.

WT: So, you can take bodies from Canada, from every province? A deceased coming from Ontario, would the family just pay the cost of transit to your facility? I have never filled out a customs application for a dead body, how does that work, shipping a body out of country?

Houston: We would partner with a licensed funeral home local to where the person passed away. The funeral home would prepare the body and the documents for shipping. There is remarkably little paperwork to get a person to us, it’s just a death certificate and a certificate of non-contagion, meaning the person did not die of anything crazily contagious. And that’s all it takes to get them to us.

Truman: Just to be clear, we would take care of all of this. The families do not have to worry about any of this, we recognize that this is a very difficult time, they are under a lot of stress. We take care of the arrangements in partnership with a Canadian funeral home, handling the entirety of the process.

WT: How does it go in terms of any funeral home, what happens when you call a funeral home and ask the body to be sent to you, do people get any push-back, or do they hear “this is a great idea”? What has been the response?

Truman: It’s a mixed group. Our experience has been that the younger funeral directors are really excited about being progressive. Of course, you have folks that are more traditional, so there is a real mix. What we really love is when we deal with Jewish funeral homes, as they typically do not embalm. This is very helpful to us because we don’t (embalm) either. These work closely with us as we do our international or long-distance work.

WT: So, to summarize, you call up a funeral home, you set this up, the body gets there, you decompose it, then you ship back burlap sacks with the compost. Is there anything further that the family has to do? Is that the end of it?

Houston: Legally, the family has nothing more to do. Emotionally, they have a lot of work to do. Now they have their person back, they have the opportunity to create a memorial; they can have in their yard, or at a local arboretum, somewhere that is important to them. As long as they have the private property owner’s permission, they can put the soil wherever they wish.

WT: To fill out the business case, is this something you are looking to franchise or expand? If I buy a business, the idea of volume of product comes up, is it ten people a day, a hundred, or two? What is the scale now, and how could it scale up in the future?

Truman: We have helped forty families so far, in the few months we have been open. It’s been a pretty powerful response here in Washington State. We think this is going to grow a lot. This is the first new disposition method to come into the USA since cremation, so this is going to obviously take some time but it obviously also got great power to it, given its environmental component.

You asked about franchising, our answer is no. I could not imagine franchising because we are dealing with the most precious people in a family, there is no margin for error, we see this as sacred work. Our operations would be wholly owned and operated by us.

In terms of Canada, we would love to come to Canada, but Canada has not yet legislated for this. We are hoping this changes, that people get excited about it, and we will be there.

WT: Is this an issue in some states too, or is this a US Federal matter? Is there a permit that you get from a state?

Truman: It is not federal. That is the reason why change has been so slow in the US, everything happens state by state, so the regulations change that way as well. In Washington, we were the first state to ratify, and then Colorado and Oregon followed suit, they have also ratified, and now there are a number of states behind that coming in the next year. We expect this to sweep across the US and then the rest of the world will follow suit.

WT: One last question, everybody has seen a Western movie, there is always a burial scene. Are you just now coming back around to how things were previously? Are burials coming full circle?

Truman: I would go with a slightly longer timeline. We have been returning to earth for millions of years. It’s only been since the Civil War, when embalming began, that we have been altering our methods in ways that slow down the natural process. Our view is not that there is a huge change in general, there has just been an anomaly for the last 150 years. We are going back to the natural way, that is way before cowboys, just making sure the last act is one that gives back. I think it’s really important, especially given the world we live in now.

WT: Have you figured out if everyone who died in the US or Canada did this process going forward, how good for the environment would that be?

Truman: We calculate that our process uses one-tenth of the fossil fuel that cremation does.

So, in essence, we would lessen the cremation carbon footprint by 90%. Each cremation produces around 500 lbs of CO2, multiplied by two and a half million people who die in the US each year, figure the cremation percentage on that; we are talking about millions of tonnes of CO2 that would be saved.

WT: Thank you, we will leave it there.


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