'I Turn People into Trees'

We were gathered on a chilly overcast December day to start him on his journey back to the forest. He had loved Washington's rainforest and the kaleidoscope of life it produced. And now, rather than be locked away in a standard burial vault, his remains were about to be reduced and returned to nurture the forest.

My father was a naval officer, so my early life involved a lot of moving. By the time I'd graduated from college, I'd attended sixteen schools and had traveled a lot. But when I came to the Herland Forest in 1987, I knew I'd found my forever home.

My team and I have been developing our permaculture forest for more than thirty years now. When one has put that much time, effort, and love into a place, it's natural to want to be buried there too. Unfortunately, that's not legal in Washington State where a person can only be buried in a licensed cemetery. So the next logical step was to dedicate a portion of the land we steward as a natural burial cemetery.

We obtained the license in 2015, and started interring remains the next year. Since we were new to the cemetery business, we started out slow. We were excited by the opportunity to explore the potential for transforming human remains into trees, and knew that there was much to learn.

It's easy enough to plant a tree, but getting that tree to take root and prosper on
marginal land, well, that's not so easily done. Nor is transforming one's remains into something that helps, rather than hinders growth. Instead of being a rite of consumerism, it's done quietly in a forest where nature does the work.

Modern funeral and burial techniques are actually designed to work in the opposite direction: embalming chemicals delaying decomposition, coffins made of chemically treated wood or synthetic materials separating the body from the soil, and, in many cemeteries, concrete vaults adding another impermeable layer. Cremation is seen as a less elaborate alternative, but ashes are far from the best way to reintegrate organic matter into the environment, and besides, the carbon footprint of cremation is immense.

Cradle to cradle

Our key vehicle to help one's remains truly return to nature is Natural organic reduction (NOR): a newly authorized method of disposition that provides a low carbon-footprint alternative to traditional burial and to cremation alike. Instead of resisting the natural decay of the body by embalming a person's remains and sealing them in a concrete vault, NOR supports and accelerates the process of transforming the remains into soil. A symphony of bacteria, protozoa, and fungi work together to break down the body and free up elements such as magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus that will in turn support the growth of new trees, plants, and shrubs.

First, the NOR Cradle is prepared by laying down a bed of a hundred gallons of wood chips that had been gathered from the forest. Pacific Northwest forests are at risk for catastrophic wild fires. In order to lessen the danger, we gather up branches that have been broken off by winter ice storms and remove trees that have been the victims of bark beetles; we remove low branches that can function as "ladder fuels" and thin out weak and damaged trees. These branches are chipped and then used in ways that support the diversification of the Herland Forest.

The next step involves laying the body inside the Cradle, on a bed of wood chips. Then another hundred gallons of wood chips is added, to create a balance between the nitrogen rich human remains and the carbon rich wood chips. Then the lid is put in place and bolted shut.

The last step in starting the reduction involves adjusting the moisture content inside the Cradle. Warm water that's been inoculated with the composting organisms is added introducing the bacteria, protozoa and fungi that will do the work of reducing the remains into soil.

Then, with everything in place, it's time to step back and let nature begin to perform the transformation.

Over time we learned how to introduce oxygen into the grave so that the organisms could optimize the conversion of the body into carbon dioxide. We wanted to avoid the default mode that happens when biological materials decompose without oxygen. Without oxygen, decomposition produces methane, generally referred to as "natural gas." Since methane is twenty times more active as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, we wanted to minimize the generation of methane as much as possible.

As the process unfolds, the organisms in the Cradle consume the immediately available oxygen. In your backyard compost pile, the compost is turned and rotated at regular intervals to keep it oxygenated. In NOR, we do that by rolling the Cradle back and forth along a 20' track by hand. The rotation tumbles the Cradle's contents like clothes tumbling in a drier. That allows the organisms to breathe and continue the decomposition process.

By monitoring the temperature in the center of the Cradle, we can keep track of how the process is coming along. When rotating the Cradle and adding more oxygen to the interior no longer causes the temperature to rise, the initial process is done.

At that point, the Cradle is opened and the reduced remains are filtered to remove anything that could increase the metal content of the compost—things like hip replacements, dental fillings, and pacemakers. Any remaining bone fragments are pulverized and added to the compost, which is then stored in 55-gallon drums where over time the bacteria, protozoa and fungi finish the process of breaking the remains down to the elemental level.

Because our facility is located in a forest, we have plenty of room to store the compost drums until the family is ready to receive them. And if they decide they don't want to take all four drums, we're happy to use the remainder in the Herland Forest to help another young tree get a head start.

After the age of abundance

Herland Forest didn't start out to become the first facility in the country to be licensed to do NOR; rather, it's been an organic outgrowth of the sustainability work being done by the Windward Education and Research Center. The Center's mission is to demonstrate how to feed, fuel, and clothe people on marginal land, and part of that work involves keeping alive traditional skills and self-reliant crafts. The sad truth is that the skills of a thousand generations can be lost in one.

Our premise is that humanity can not reasonably expect to enjoy unlimited growth on a finite planet, it's inevitable that one day the age of abundance will draw to a close. When that happens, people will have to relearn how to live on the annual solar budget, how to do more with less, and how to live together in ways that sustain both the land and each other.

We do this research in partnership with the animals that enabled our ancestors to sustain themselves long before humanity discovered how to tap into the one-time inheritance of fossil-fuels. To develop those skills, the Center works with goats and sheep, pigs and chickens, and rabbits (they're more important than you might think) to convert things that we don't want to eat into things that we do want to eat. Each of these animal-human partnerships taps into different parts of our land's productivity, and by spreading the load we can provide what we need without harming the land's carrying capacity.

Diversity is key to achieving that goal. Our forest naturally has pines, firs, and oaks, but we're working to transform it into a permaculture forest that will demonstrate how people can get their food, fuel and fiber from the forest. Today, people rely on fossil fuels for their sustenance; tomorrow, they'll have to rely on renewable resources.

Early on we started "fire proofing" our forest by chipping up the debris that litters the forest floor. We use the chips to provide bedding for our animals, mulch for our gardens, and heat for our buildings. The animals we work with are not raised for sale; they're valued members of our sustainability team. Each flock has a herd queen who manages the younger animals, and when those older animals pass on, we compost their remains in order to continue the cycle of life.

So the concept of using wood chips to compost the remains of the large mammals who live out their lives here was a logical next step. And the logical step that comes after that is to use the compost to plant trees that will enhance our forest's diversity—chestnuts, ginkos, walnuts, hazelnuts, and lots more.
Without intending to, we had created an in situ form of natural organic reduction.

When the new law passed, people started showing up wanting to learn more about NOR. At that point, it was a simple matter to set up to do the work above ground for those who wanted to return to their own beloved home.

Our lives, and the lives of everyone we love, depend on the oxygen produced in Earth's oceans and forests. The bottom line is that we need trees in order to live, and so it seems fitting for one's last act to involve giving back to the forest.

That's how we arrived at being able to help people go home by another way, to go back to the forest or the land they love. If you dream of being united with a piece of land that you've come to love, we're here to help. And if you know a young person who's drawn to exploring the intersection of death care and intentional community, let them know that Herland Forest offers internships. Because in uncertain times, when you're not sure of what to do, it never hurts to plant more trees.

Walt Patrick has been working on the chemistry of sustainability at the
small community scale for four decades.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.