There is no sunrise the morning we leave to bring my mom home. Bloated gray clouds promise hours of rain shattering against the car, hours of the wipers thumping off-beat to dad’s favorite Tammy Wynette tracks.
Scott Vogt, the Executive Director of the arboretum in my Kansas hometown, calls just as the Cascades begin to loom over the central Washington plains. He lets us know they are breaking ground on mom’s garden today. It will be a little nook off the main path—the paved trail that circles round the pond and the big willow and where, on a fourth-grade field trip, my relay team came in dead last after my awful first leg. Scott describes a beautiful, backless S- shaped bench that will let the visitor choose how they experience the space. It is teak, the only wood that can match the demands of the prairie climate, the land that Lewis and Clark described as a treeless wasteland before moving on in search of mountains. Eventually, the bench will turn gray, the same color as the locks of hair tied with twine in the five glass jars sitting safely on a shelf in my dad’s study. One for my dad, one for me, and three to deliver to my brothers in three months-time when we are all back in Kansas for the first time in years.
In the garden there will be a tree. Scott suggests a Burr Oak, but I am tree illiterate. I pull up a picture of a strong, tall tree with thick branches and broad leaves. It grows slowly, but eventually reaches seventy to eighty feet tall with an equally wide spread. Its acorns are bolder than most, with a majestic fringed cap. They would’ve gone nicely with the pinecones and hedgeapples my mom collected every fall from our own patch of virgin prairie, arranging them around her beloved stuffed pots of maroon mums that lined the brick steps of the front porch.
The rain turns hesitant as we pull into a neat commercial block tucked between sleepy neighborhoods in Auburn. Here on the other side of the Cascades, the fruit trees have already blossomed, tender petals in a spectrum of pinks on their way to becoming dark cherries, honey- fleshed apples, sugar-swollen plums. We turn in at the leaf-green Return Home sign and park next to a petal splattered car. The juxtaposition continues as we step into the lobby, concrete warehouse floor and thick cement walls offset with an explosion of climbing and crawling vines.
A blind dog greets us, barking like he’s three times bigger than his fifteen-pound frame. His name is Chuck.
Katey Houston is waiting for us, Return Home’s Services Manager. With hair shaved close on one side, a delicate silver nose bridge, and cozy sweater, Katey feels natural in this unconventional space. She gently hushes Chuck, who upon giving my boot a sniff, goes from sparky watchdog to tail-wagging fluffball. I give his floppy ears a good scratch, grateful to be greeted by a dog rather than a side showroom of caskets.
“Would you like to see her first?” Katey asks, pausing at the door leading out of the lobby into the back. I must be a better actor than I think, or my dad doesn’t see the look in my eyes like I’m stuck on a train track with an engine car barreling down horn blaring and light blinding. Either way, he says yes.
Chuck cheerily follows the echo of our footsteps into the high-ceilinged warehouse. A towering metal frame with human-sized metal boxes slotted in stretches the length of the room opposite us, half covered by massive sliding panels painted to resemble a vibrant forest. But we don’t linger. Katey leads us around the corner, and I see a rolling table. Six full burlap sacks are stacked in two rows, five small burlap bundles tied with twine and green ribbon arranged carefully on top. The burlap sacks are full of compost, the scent of earth harmonizing with the perfume of linalool and (E)-beta-ocimene sloughing off from some nearby lilies.
I think something must be expected of me. Dad caresses the rough burlap, asks Katey unintelligible questions, and I stand there unsure whether my chest is filling up or being vacuumed out.
We move on to the tour.
Against a long stretch of wall printed with a to-scale photograph of a Pacific Northwest woods, one of the large metal boxes sits alone, top opened. Long enough to lay in and a few feet deep, it has been filled to the brim. The uppermost layer is a riot of color—an assortment of leaves, flowers, and yellow crisscrossed strands of hay spilling over one corner. A white cotton shroud runs down the middle, like a blanket of snow misplaced in a spring meadow.
This is their showcase model, Katey explains, specially set up for educational purposes. Human composting (the official term is Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), but Return Home prefers to call their process terramation: from terra, meaning “earth”, and mation, meaning “the creation of”) has only been legal in Washington State since 2020, the first state to legalize it. The vessel, what Katey calls the box, is unique to Return Home’s process. This is the wild west age of NOR, and the handful of pioneering funeral homes have been limited only by imagination and science in their methods for transforming the human body into soil.
“Technically, its compost,” Katey clarifies. “My soil science guy gets annoyed, but I like the sound of soil better.” I agree with her. Compost is sharp and dry on the tongue; soil rolls off like a hymn.
When a body arrives at Return Home, the vessel is prepared for the laying in ceremony. An organic mix of alfalfa, straw, and sawdust fill two-thirds, the remaining space finished with aromatic greens and flowers. The body, gently washed, is swaddled in a cotton robe, designed to completely break down during the composting process, and laid atop the organic bed. If the family of the deceased chooses to be present, they may tuck any compostable, consumable, or biodegradable items in the vessel, too. Once the vessel is ready to be sealed, a solitary gong is struck. The entire warehouse stills, the deceased’s name, spoken aloud by all those present, drifts through the air like a dandelion seed spinning on a late July breeze.
We move away from the table with the burlap sacks, back to the towering frame that houses the vessels. Thirty out of seventy are full today. Thirty bodies on their way back to soil. Thirty families and loved ones weeping and laughing and picking out trees to plant with their own christened burlap sacks of soil.
The front of one of the vessels is wallpapered with photos, a large gold-sparkled E pasted in the center. “Some families choose to decorate them,” Katey explains. Further down the room, a semi-circle of mismatched chairs face the terramation wall, a resting place for those who come to watch and wait over their loved ones body-becoming-soil. The mix of recliners, rockers, wingbacks, and a lone white Adirondack look more inviting than the cushioned armchair or bed I’d spent hours sitting on in my mom’s room during the last year of her life, watching my dad feed her lunch, listening to her sing (growing ever quieter, ever more fractured, ever more weary) to music even though she couldn’t hold a conversation, despairing as atrophy relentlessly turned her body stiff. I wonder which liberating vessel was hers—immobile stone freed to soft soil that will sink into the creases of my palms and stream through my fingers when I give her back to our Kansas prairie.
An ocean of tallgrass once blanketed 167 million acres of North America, from the northern edges of modern-day Minnesota all the way south until finally running out of soil at the Gulf of Mexico. Today, a mere 4% survives, holy ground untouched by men or machine. In 1837, the gentle seas of chest-high grass, their underground tapestry of roots reaching as far as 20 feet down into the earth, met a swift death when an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere invented a steel plow capable of slicing into its 6-12 inches of dense, black sod. Within a single human lifespan, the tallgrass prairie was tilled, cut, and divided up into ordered squares of wheat, corn, and soybeans. The goldmine of the Midwest, the fertile limestone-based mollisol soil of the prairie was accordingly plundered.
The Flint Hills of Kansas, a rolling patch of land in the east of the state, shelters nearly all the old-growth tallgrass that remains. Shallow, rocky soil, once regarded as a detriment—a land “wholly unfit for cultivation” according to one government surveyor in 1823—turned out to be the prairie’s salvation. My family’s little ten acres of prairie, however, was an orphaned piece, an ancient ecosystem cut adrift, over a hundred miles of tilled, fertilized, and chemically treated dirt between it and the Flint Hills. I don’t know why this patch was spared the plow. Perhaps it was the tangled bramble of sand hill plum bushes and the sweet, bright red jars of jelly they promised. Perhaps it was nostalgia conjured by the two buffalo wallows, like impressions of God’s thumbprint left on the land when He molded the prairie out of the barren dust. Perhaps it was the fringed puccoon, blue phlox, butterfly milkweed, or violet wood sorrel wildflowers.
Perhaps, one morning, a farmer watched his child running through the soft grass, birdsong mixing with laughter, and smiled into his bitter coffee.
Mom and I would walk the paths my dad mapped out and mowed, skirting around the wallows and the transplanted Osage oranges and the invasive cedars. Spring was my favorite, when tiny purple flowers, smaller than the tip of my finger, magically sprouted from one day to the next. Fairy flowers, my mom called them, claiming they grew wherever their dainty feet had touched the ground. We’d follow the petal trail back to a sprawling Osage, its massive trunk curved forward so that its branches made a protected hollow. The fairies lived under those sheltering branches, always quick to hide from human eyes but spinning through the air and conjuring flowers as soon as we looked away.
This summer, I will bring part of Mom to this tree in the prairie where, to borrow from Marilynne Robinson, “there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay.” Nothing but the heart-colors of sunrise and sunset, fairy songs, and the ghosts of mother and daughter wove into the tallgrass.
Katey leads us around the back of the terramation framework. Wires and pipes protrude from each vessel, keeping careful measurements of temperature and airflow—the bacteria must be kept happy and feasting. The plant material inside the vessels is carefully chosen for its ratio of carbon to nitrogen, the fuel needed to make the microbes excited and active, which in turn keeps the temperature high enough to eliminate pathogens and efficiently make decaying organic material life-giving compost. As the bacteria do what bacteria do—releasing enzymes and acids that combine into the perfect decomposition cocktail—air flow in and out is tweaked and the vessel is turned once or twice. After thirty days, the vessel is opened, the new soil sifted to remove any inorganic materials like metal hip replacements or dental fillings. But the process is not yet complete. It takes another thirty to sixty days back in the vessel for the compost to reach the moisture level regulated by law, indicating that microbe activity has finally slowed, their primordial job complete.
This final stage is different for each unique body, irrespective of physical mass or age. A full-grown adult may take only a total of sixty days to become soil, but the little eleven-year-old boy Return Home recently shepherded was not ready to be robed in burlap sacks until a full ninety days had passed. Mom’s body took seventy-six days. “Some bodies,” Katey shrugs, “Just have more energy to use up.” In the resurrection business, science hasn’t yet figured out how to measure the intangible, unknowable things.
Wendell Berry calls soil the “great connector of lives, the source and destination of all,” and that magnetic, pulsing thread pulls us back to the burlap sacks on the table. Katey raises a large garage door, flooding the room with the pregnant air of early spring. My dad backs up the SUV, and we spend a few minutes fumbling with the seats and a blue tarp, spreading it flat to catch the dust that will escape the burlap. Katey lifts the first sack, sets it in the vehicle. Dad follows without hesitation, sliding his arms underneath one, raising it, nestling it safely on the tarp.
I want to be helpful. The burlap is rough as a cat’s tongue. The compost is lighter than expected. Cradled against my chest, the scent of dirt overwhelms, like the wet kind you are compelled to dig your fingers into as a child searching for earthworms and the secret tunnel to the heart of the world you feel throbbing through the soles of your bare feet in the summer grass. With each burlap sack I lift, my spine stretches upwards. For the first time that day, I can almost make out the silhouette of the sun high overhead, burning through the crying sky.
I drive home. This is why we’d chosen the day after Easter to retrieve mom, using my day off university so dad wouldn’t have to make the journey alone. We cross the mountains through constant rolling sheets of rain. We chat and laugh. Although I don’t look back at the burlap sacks, I slow and accelerate gently, taking turns like this is a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive.
The front of unsettled weather has broken by the time we pull into our driveway, gravel already half-dry under the timid evening sun. I back up to the backyard gate. The cellar, where we will keep mom’s soil in this interim before the memorial in June, is easier to reach by following the outdoor stone pathway to the walkout basement. Last summer, we’d put in a series of ponds and a patio, an arched wooden bridge hovering over an ever-flowing stream of clear water. Most of the plants in the bark and river rock beds are still dormant, but the evergreen trees shimmer. We’d hoped to bring mom here one afternoon—not to see the fountains and the flowers (Posterior Cortical Atrophy had blurred and distended her vision several years ago) but to hear the birds splashing in the shallow pool edges, warm voices telling lovely stories about a family, three boys and a girl and a husband and wife, who lived next to a prairie. But it was finished too late into autumn, the wind too cold, her body too fragile for a journey beyond the care home’s covered porch.
Now, one burlap sack at a time, my dad and I carry mom through the garden. A bird trills from a tree. With each trip, the sleeves of my black jacket are dusted brown, wild compost breaking free from the burlap, seeking out the suddenly nearby earth. The air is drenched with the smell of fresh rain, flooding my throat until it starts to spill out my eyes.
Like compost, the bright aroma following rain is a resurrection. And, as all things, it is born from the dust. Out of the 10 billion individual living things in any given handful of soil, there is an extraordinary bacteria belonging to the genus Streptomyces. To call this particular bunch of bacteria extraordinary is not an exaggeration; when it comes reproduction, they have been forced to get creative. Binary fission, the process by which one bacteria cell splits into two, only occurs in a plentiful environment where indulgent bacteria can eat to bursting. When the soil dries out and nutrients get scarce, most bacteria simply move on to greener pastures better able to support their offspring. But some bacteria, like Streptomyces, are stubbornly immobile. Unable to travel on their own, they have become expert hitchhikers.
At the first signs of stress, Streptomyces start shedding spores, hardy little cells capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and droughts. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about the spores themselves, but when researchers went looking for the genetic switch that signaled the bacteria’s spore production, they stumbled on something unexpected. The same genes that signal spore production simultaneously tell Streptomyces to make a chemical compound called geosmin—that “fresh rain smell” human noses are so good at detecting. (Geosmin is also responsible for the tempting smell of soil that tickles the oldest parts of our collective memories, strikes the same frequency as our atoms, familiar and uncontainable as an exhaled breath.) Springtails, tiny hairy insects, also find the alure of geosmin irresistible. Drawn to the sweet, microscopic chemical pools, the springtails trample through the dirt, hairy legs gathering up Streptomyces spores only to, hopefully, shake them off later in more hospitable soil—earth good for growing things, bacteria and springtails and humans alike.
The hours of rain today have churned up the geosmin, and I am helpless as a springtail, held captive by the hope filling my nostrils, ballooning my chest. After the last of my mom’s soil is arranged in the cellar, the light turned out and door shut, I return to the bridge. The sun is turning the sky tender, warm flushes of peach and pink. Suspended above flowing water, arms covered in compost, I am an earth creature.
From dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, and from that dust a garden will grow—a place of hospitality where one Streptomyces becomes two, fairy flowers magically sprout from one sunrise to the next, and an acorn with a fantastic cap will fall from a tall oak tree, sink into the soil, grow roots down and a sapling up, unfurl thin leaves to drink in honeyed sunlight.
The Hebrew word for soil is adamah, one syllable more than adam, both the word for man and the name of the first human formed by God out of dust, given life by God’s own breath. In Latin, adamah becomes humus, the root of both human and humility. There is a deep creaturely truth in this trinity of soil, human, and humbleness. Soil is a planet-wide eternal decomposition system, receiving death and creating the possibility of life from the ashes—this is what Wendell Berry means when he says soil has a “Christ-like” nature: “It is enriched by all things that die and enters into it…Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.” Soil will receive our bodies in death the same as the wood of a decaying tree or the remains of a doe after the coyotes have filled their bellies. Soil will take our bodies and practice resurrection, that mysterious promise that smells like fresh rain and looks like the body of a man who was nailed on a cross and rose on the third day with a body marred by human suffering yet made new. Something imperishable.
We have discovered the chemical responsible for the smell of rain, found the exact gene in a type of a bacteria that triggers its production. We cannot recover memories ravaged by dementia.
Theologians and philosophers love to speak about the ambiguities of faith, but I’m partial to Berry’s perspective. “We must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe…” Scripture, too, rejoices in mystery. Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul can do nothing else but revel in glorious mystery to describe the meaning and strange reality of Jesus’ resurrection, that outrageous, radical foundation of Christian hope.
[W]e will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality… But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Cor 15: 51-57
The sun heats my exposed skin; the soil still clinging to my jacket warms to embers. I step off the bridge into the yard just awakening in the first breaths of spring, brown bleeding into green in a blush of chlorophyll. I brush the soil from my arms into the reborn grass, a promise of the coming summer, a Kansas prairie, and a Burr oak whose roots will rejoice in receiving my mom’s transformed body, growing full and magnificent in her garden.
My dad joins me on the grass. We look to the west, waiting for the dying of the day to bloom.
Written by Melinda Mullet, daughter of Teresa