Eco-friendly death care market grows amid demand
Since Return Home launched its TikTok page in September 2021, nearly half a million accounts have followed along to learn from the company’s employees about the process of human composting. One video in which service manager Katey Houston explains how bones are handled using a tiny cardboard skeleton has been watched 2.7 million times since it was posted in March.
Founder Micah Truman says Return Home’s quick success on TikTok is a sign that more people are thinking differently about how they’d like their bodies handled after they die. Fifty individuals have been turned into soil at Return Home since its opening in June 2021.
Altogether, since mid-2020, about 200 people in Washington state have opted to embrace their final resting place in a more sustainable way. Also called natural organic reduction or terramation, the process applies the age-old practice of composting to people, turning their remains into soil that can fertilize new growth.
While the businesses and technology behind it are brand-new, the demand for more sustainable burial solutions has been rising for years. Now a new generation’s growing concerns about the environmental impact of common death care methods, the rise of new technologies like human composting, and a changing legal landscape are contributing to a new phase in the “green death care” movement. Investors are betting on the fact that the market will continue to expand, even though it’s still in its infancy.
“Younger people are generally more concerned about the environment. They’re also further away—we all hope—from death,” said John Niedfeldt-Thomas, the chief association executive of the Green Burial Council. “But as they are exploring these things, that demand for greener options after death will increase and will drive what we’ve already seen, which is an increase in offerings by funeral homes and cemeteries and product providers. It’s a movement creating a market.”
A growing market
Shifts toward environmental concerns and away from religion are contributing to the trend.
In the past, death care rituals were often determined by religious affiliation. Christian services often involve viewing the embalmed body before burial, for example. But the percentage of Americans who belong to traditional congregations has been falling steadily over the last 20 years. In 2020, the percentage who said they were members of a church, mosque, or synagogue fell below 50% for the first time.
That has led to people seeking out other options and has played a part in the steady rise of cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) predicted the cremation rate would be 57.5% in 2021. But preference for cremation is coming up against the other shift: In 2021, 85% of 10,000 people surveyed globally said they had shifted to making more sustainable purchases within the last five years, and younger respondents were more likely to be actively shifting toward green choices.
This year, NFDA reported that 60.5% of respondents to its annual survey said “they would be interested in exploring green funeral options,” up from 53.8% in 2017 and 55.7% in 2021, according to numbers provided to Fortune.
Due to the fossil fuels needed to run the machines at high temperatures and emissions released during the process itself, experts estimate that each cremation results in 534.6 pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions. That would result in about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year, equivalent to the annual emissions from about 77,500 gasoline-powered cars.
Burial has its own eco-issues: In the U.S, experts estimate, about 50% of bodies are embalmed, and burial within caskets made with materials that don’t break down and in concrete-lined graves is common. Embalming fluid and nonbiodegradable burial materials can pollute the earth.
It makes sense, then, that interest in more eco-friendly death care first created a push to increase the number of places where natural burial, also called “green burial,” is offered. Niedfeldt-Thomas said 318 cemeteries in the U.S. now report offering some version of green burial, which has a much smaller environmental impact, compared to 109 in 2015. Between 2020 and 2021 alone, the number of cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council jumped from 73 to 102.
“Over time, as more and more people have experienced [attending] a natural burial, more and more people have become interested in it,” said Ed Bixby, founder of Steelmantown Cemetery Company in New Jersey. Bixby began offering natural burial services there in 2008. Interest was so strong year over year, he grew the business into Destination Destiny, a eco-friendly burial service launched in 2016. It now has 11 natural burial sites in states including California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, with plans to continue expansion.
Green burial cemeteries often preserve wildlife and pollinator habitat and provide beautiful spaces for families to visit, but they require land, and in many densely populated cities, even traditional cemeteries are running out of space.
“[Human composting] was originally developed as an urban equivalent to green burial,” said Anna Swenson, the outreach manager for Recompose. In fact, the company grew out of a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project started by founder Katrina Spade, the original developer of human composting, in 2014.
Instead of placing each body directly into the ground, Recompose and its competitor, Return Home, use what they call “vessels,” large boxes big enough to hold a body and ample organic material. Those vessels can be stacked on top of one another and reused, minimizing space requirements. Here’s how it works: Naturally occurring microbes on the organic material break down the body over 30 days, as long as a certain temperature is maintained and the vessel is periodically rotated. Then the companies remove the skeleton, grind the bones, and reintroduce the bone fragments to the soil mixture to finish the decomposition process. There have been no life-cycle analyses that fully measure the energy use involved, but the companies say the energy required to power the facilities is a tiny fraction compared to cremation. Recompose says its process “requires one-eighth of the energy of conventional burial or cremation.”
And instead of carbon from the body being released during decomposition, it ends up embedded in 500 pounds of compost, said Micah Truman, CEO of Return Home. More than half of the families his company has served so far have chosen to take it all home, in burlap bags affixed with silver tags that bear the person’s name. If they prefer not to or don’t have a place for the compost, Return Home spreads it on an eight-acre woodland where the soil had previously been depleted.
While there are signs of increasing consumer interest, growth has been uneven for green burial companies. Recompose has served 150 people since 2020 and Swenson says it has both a waiting list and about 1,000 “precompose” members who have reserved their spot in advance. While Return Home has not operated at capacity since it opened. So far, the two companies are the only big players in the space.
Investment in the space is also still limited. Data from Crunchbase showed venture funding in the entire funeral industry doubled between 2017 and 2021, from $25.5 million to $50.9 million, while PitchBook showed only a handful of venture capital deals related to “green burial” between 2018 and 2021—nearly all of which were related to Return Home and Recompose. Return Home has raised about $3.5 million to date; Recompose, about $17 million.
“We’re seeing a shift in the way that folks are thinking about all decisions, particularly as it relates to the climate. And I think as awareness grows around this problem, [human composting] will be an easy choice,” said Olivia Tabah, a senior investment associate at Gratitude Railroad, which invested in Recompose, the first company to develop human composting. “They are really in the early innings, but I think they have a ton of runway to scale.”
One big challenge is that natural organic reduction has so far only been legalized in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Bills have been proposed but not been passed in other states including New York and Massachusetts; advocates are confident legislation in California will pass soon.
Still, Swenson said there are plenty of people to serve in Washington alone, where close to 50,000 choose cremation each year.
“Even if only 10% of the people currently choosing cremation chose human composting, that’s almost 5,000 people, and it will be a very long time before human composting has the capacity to serve 5,000 people,” she said. Recompose is opening a second location in Seattle in June and has another planned for Colorado early next year.
In addition, Tabah said, the death rate is going to double in the next 30 years due to the aging of the population, and for impact investment companies like Gratitude Railroad, Recompose represents an opportunity to put money toward the greater good from multiple angles. “The second piece is that they’re really trying to create a more beautiful and accepting experience around death,” she said. “It’s one of our best investments to showcase because the social and environmental impact really do intersect.”
While the green burial cemeteries that came before haven’t gotten the same attention from investors—likely because they’re mostly small, family-owned businesses—that sentiment seems like an outgrowth of the movement they started and continue to foment.
“We’re really changing the face of death care and the image of the people in death care,” Bixby said, “and we’re helping families find inner peace through a horrible experience.”
Correction, May 18, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated Recompose’s capacity level.
This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.