It almost has shades of the opening of a mystery novel, something like Patricia Cornwell’s 1994 “Body Farm”: A woman cold-calls a forensic anthropologist and says “I need your help with a project. It’s about composting humans.”
But this isn’t a mystery novel, and the caller, Katrina Spade of Seattle, was dead serious when she solicited the help of Western Carolina University’s Cheryl Johnston, who serves as director of the Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt) and as an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology.
“We started talking in October 2014, and I knew right away that Cheryl has expertise in human decomposition,” said Spade. “She was really excited about the project.” Spade is founder and director of the Urban Death Project. Her goal is to create a viable alternative to burial and cremation that will provide a more natural way to dispose of human bodies and allow them to give back to the earth.
With a background in architecture and anthropology, Spade envisions creating a three-story compost-based renewal system where bodies would gently decompose and leave behind rich compost. She hopes to break ground on the first center of this type by 2020 in Seattle and then provide a tool kit to help cities and towns create facilities of their own.
A Kickstarter campaign for the Urban Death Project ended in May and resulted in more than $91,000 in donations from 1,218 supporters. That money doesn’t go to the building of a facility, but will be used at this point to fund additional design and engineering.
Spade envisions providing a center that will be respectful of the ritual of those in mourning. Friends and family would be able to carry the shrouded body of their loved one to the top of the three-story structure that Spade calls “the core.” During a “laying-in ceremony,” the body would be placed inside and would gradually move down as the process reduces the body to compost, which survivors could possibly use to plant a tree.
While it may be uncomfortable to confront thoughts of death, and equally distressing to think about the ultimate deterioration of human bodies, it is a 100 percent truth that everyone is going to die. “The fact is, we are existing because of decomposition,” said Spade. “There’s fear about it because it reminds us of our mortality, but decomposition is crucial to our existence.”
Composting remains is not a new idea. Some farmers already are composting livestock. But is this an appropriate alternative for human bodies? That’s where Johnston’s research comes into play. “We’re starting out simply by putting human remains in a pile of wood chips at the FOReSt to see how long it takes to decompose,” said Johnston. “We’ll see what the resulting material looks like at the end of the process. We also need to find out if it would be a biohazard and whether it’s safe to spread on a garden or a field.”
Johnston sees Spade’s plan as a better alternative to burials or cremation. “It’s not burning fossil fuels, not taking up landscape or putting chemicals into the environment,” she said. “I think there are people out there who want another option to being burned or put in the ground. I think it would be great if people accepted it.”
“I don’t want to convince anyone,” said Spade. “It’s just about providing another option. It’s about people thinking about the options and the fact that we’re all going to die. We really do live better if we are aware of our own mortality, and it’s good for our friends and family to know how we want the end of our lives to be. We’re just beginning as a culture to getting around to talking about it.”
Setting a Research Plan in Action
There currently are two bodies being studied for the project at the FOReSt, which is one of only six such human decomposition facilities in the country. The wooded area situated close to campus has what Johnston calls “pretty serious fencing,” with razor wire and wooden privacy walls. “We can put a body in the wood chips and animals can’t get to it,” said Johnston. “We can control for things that would happen outside the fence.”
As for how the Urban Death Project research on campus began, “sometimes events just start coming together,” Johnston said. “I was in the Leadership Academy here at Western and talked with Lauren Bishop, the director of sustainability and energy management. She has access to all the wood chips taken from trees on campus. I had a ready source of wood chips, and they were all free.”
Johnston received the first body in February and the second in March. Both were placed in wood chips, but the researchers have added alfalfa pellets and water to the second body after consulting with Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University who has studied using composting to dispose of the bodies of livestock and other animals.
“We took a peek at the one that’s been out since February, and there’s still a lot of soft tissue,” said Johnston. “The other one may be a little farther along. When we start setting up a system like Katrina has in mind, we’ll find ways to accelerate the process. With cows and horses, it’s a matter of weeks.”
During the spring and summer, Lucas Rolleri ’14 was the only WCU student involved in the project, but Johnston hopes to get grant money to hire additional students. Rolleri received a degree in anthropology with a concentration in forensic anthropology from WCU in December 2014 and is enrolled in a master’s degree program at Southern Illinois University that starts in August. Originally from Cary, he spent his first two years of college at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and then transferred to Western Carolina.
“Learning from two board-certified forensic anthropologists is more than any student could ask for,” said Rolleri. “It was an amazing opportunity, and really cool that Dr. Johnston was open to undergraduate research. I could go into her office and say, ‘Hey, I have this idea,’ and she helped facilitate it.”
His work at the FOReSt included taking temperatures of the wood chips that surround the bodies. “The one that also has a layer of alfalfa looked like it was reaching higher temperatures. The goal is to find the best, most efficient ways to compost humans,” he said.
After earning his master’s degree, Rolleri plans to pursue his doctorate and board certification as a forensic anthropologist with the ultimate goal of working in a medical examiner’s office, hopefully in Seattle. “The program at Western is really a hidden gem in the UNC system,” he said. “The opportunities that are available are a dream come true at the undergraduate level. It’s really a special thing.”
Human Remains Recovery
While the research for the Urban Death Project is ongoing, Johnston’s work at WCU also focuses on human remains recovery and training of cadaver dogs. In a monthlong field school each summer, she teaches “Field Recovery of Human Remains” (Anthropology 486), and also a weeklong summer class called “Surface Recovery of Human Skeletal Remains.”
This type of training prepares forensic anthropology students for future work as consultants in forensic investigations, she said. “They learn how to recover remains systematically and to create proper documentation of the process so that they could defend their interpretations in court,” Johnston said.
Johnston grew up in Asheville and graduated from Asheville High School before heading to N.C. State University in Raleigh where she earned bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and psychology, followed by a master’s degree and doctorate in anthropology at the Ohio State University. She worked in a variety of teaching roles before joining the WCU faculty in 2005 and has earned recognition as one of three board-certified forensic anthropologists in the state, and one of only 72 in the country.
While in Ohio, she was called in on numerous cases to retrieve human remains. She continues to consult, but says there are few cases in the Cullowhee area. Some of her more memorable cases in Ohio involved bodies that had been buried in basements. “A lot of houses in Columbus, Ohio, are American four squares. They have four rooms downstairs and four rooms upstairs. Earlier in the 20th century, they were very common and Sears sold them as kits from which they could be built,” she said. “A lot of those houses have a room in the basement for coal storage. Those rooms often don’t have concrete floors. Instead, they have dirt floors. In two cases, we recovered remains buried in the dirt floor.”
For the cadaver dog training Johnston offers, each two-and-a-half day session runs twice in the spring and once in the fall. The popular training sessions have attracted dog handlers from all over the United State and Canada, and even from as far away as Croatia.
“The dogs have been training in the FOReSt with the remains that are on the surface,” she said. “If you want to find a decomposing human, you have to train the dogs with decomposing human tissue, which is hard to come by. Having access to whole body decomposition is very important to the dog handlers.” Most of the dogs’ handlers are not taking part in the training as part of their job, she said. “It’s a second calling, so they aren’t paid to do it. Some are retired law enforcement and some are people who got involved in other ways, such as being private investigators,” Johnston said.
Johnston also usually offers a bone identification class for dog handlers. “They often are the first people who are going to see a bone in the field, and it’s a good idea for them to know what it is that they’re looking at,” she said. Johnston recommends the cadaver dog training Facebook page as a great resource for those seeking additional information. It may be accessed at www.facebook.com/wcucadaverdog.
Training as a forensic anthropologist requires having access to multiple sets of human remains to study. While Johnston says the research for Spade’s Urban Death Project includes finding a way to decompose the whole body, including bones, Johnston hopes that some people will want to donate their skeletal remains to WCU and other educational institutions for forensic anthropology research and education after the soft tissue is reduced to compost.
“I hope something can be set up like that so our students have access to the skeletal remains,” she said. “It’s critical in this field to see a wide range of human skeletal variation. I hope there will be an option so that if someone wants to be part of human remains research, they can.”
Johnston is open to hearing from those who are considering donating their bodies for research at WCU, but she cautions that because of the demands of her research and teaching schedule, potential donors may not get an immediate reply. She’s hopeful she can enlist the help of students to expedite the process of replying to donation inquiries. Those who are interested in discussing the possibility can reach her by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marla Hardee Milling is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Asheville.