Business

The Natural Funeral Marks a Year of Legal Body Composting

Families can see their loved ones laid to rest in ceremonial composting vessels.
Families can see their loved ones laid to rest in ceremonial composting vessels. Catie Cheshire
Almost as soon as natural organic reduction, or body composting, became legal in Colorado on September 7, 2021, The Natural Funeral — started by Seth Viddal and his partners in 2019 — began composting the first person in the state to elect the process as his after-death plan.

On September 22, the man's body was placed in a vessel built by Viddal’s brother, Christopher Olachia, and named "the chrysalis," both for the symbolism of transformation — a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a body becomes soil — and as a nod to Chris’s name. By the spring equinox in March, the body had been fully composted, turned into dirt that was given to the family.

Viddal came to the field from construction; after the deaths of three family members in short succession, as well as a personal health crisis, he says he realized that he needed to do work closer to his heart. He partnered in the Natural Funeral with Karen van Vuuren, who had two decades of experience in the natural death care area; some of his construction connections soon joined the business.

The Natural Funeral offers such green burial options as alkaline hydrolysis, a method that enables cremation with water rather than fire, which was legal before body composting. But it also helped lobby the Colorado Legislature to have body composting declared legal because it presents an environmentally friendly option and is a process that’s existed in nature forever.

“When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” Viddal asks. “I don't have any idea. Does it get composted? Of course it does, because everything does.”
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Christopher Olachia, Seth Viddal, Ben Buchholz and Becky Davis help care for those who choose body composting.
Catie Cheshire
In order to allow the process, Colorado crafted a few main rules: The composting must be done in a contained vessel rather than outdoors, the soil must react at 131 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 straight hours to be purified of any unwanted pathogens, the soil of multiple people can’t be mixed without their consent, and the end product can’t be sold or used for edible food crops.

Although the Natural Funeral is based in Lafayette, its composting and water cremation facility is in Arvada, operating as Alkaline Hydrolysis of Colorado. The first iteration of the chrysalis is still in use, but the company now has ceremonial vessels and uniform inner pods that go within a chrysalis and allow more control over temperature, humidity and pressure.

When a body is placed in the pod, the family can be in attendance. “We invite them to bring a shoebox filled with any greenery that they want,” Viddal says. “People have brought pine cones or spruce branches from trees that are now 75 feet tall that, as a couple, they planted when they first moved into their home.”

They've also contributed joints for marijuana enthusiasts and hops for home brewers; one family brought an offering of salmon, berries and nuts. After these materials — along with wood chips, straw and alfalfa provided by the Natural Funeral — are placed in the vessel, it is inoculated with a bacterial and fungal tea to help propel the composting process. The bacteria and fungi work with the microbes already present in the body to break down the organic material.

“Our GI is teeming with microbial activity, and while we're alive, we have an immune system that's keeping those microbes in check,” Viddal explains. “When our heartbeat stops and our lungs quit breathing, our immune system defenses go away, and the microbial life that is already inside our body, numbering in the billions, takes over.”

As the microbes do their work, the temperature in the vessel rises because of the gas and heat generated, reaching 140 degrees or higher within a week to ten days; in some cases, Viddal says, the temperature can reach 160 degrees. After about ten days at high levels, the temperature will go back under 130 degrees, at which point the vessel is rolled to mix and allow new material to come in contact with the microbes. The temperature will spike again for a shorter period of time; when it goes back down to 130, the vessel is rolled once more for a third heat cycle.

After those three cycles, which usually take about three months, the soil is moved to a bin for curing, to allow ammonia and other extraneous gases to evaporate; by now, no pathogens remain. Thirty days later, with a pH between 6.8 and 7, the soil is ready to be returned to the family.
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When a body is fully composted, the soil can be returned to the family.
Catie Cheshire
The Natural Funeral sent soil samples from the first twenty or so composted bodies to Arizona State University for agricultural analysis. According to Olachia, researchers there asked if they could buy the soil because it was so rich in nutrients. He told them that the company couldn’t sell it, but it does give soil to farms across Colorado if family members choose not to take it themselves.

Soil is usually stored in bags, but at the family’s request, it can be delivered in plastic buckets or the curing bin (which is then returned to the Natural Funeral); each body yields about 400 to 600 pounds of soil, depending on the size of the person and the starting materials.

According to Viddal, the most common question the company gets concerns the smell of the composting process. The company uses a filtration system to put small amounts of oxygen into the vessel and has a particulate filter that mitigates any adverse smells. As a result, he says, the warehouse space where composting takes place smells earthy, like the plant section of a home and garden store. People also wonder about the price of the process; the cost of body composting is similar to that of a coffin burial through a traditional funeral home.

As Olachia, who manages Alkaline Hydrolysis of Colorado, and Ben Buchholz, who works in the warehouse, monitor bodies, they try to honor the deceased. Often, they play music that the individual enjoyed. Once a family provided them with a recording of the person singing opera, and Olachia played the song whenever they focused on that vessel.

He switched from a job at Viddal’s former construction company to the Natural Funeral because he believes in the work, Olachia says; people should have the choice to do what they want with their bodies, and composting and water cremation are part of that. He’s since been certified by the National Funeral Directors Association.

What made Buchholz want to switch from being a construction subcontractor to working with the Natural Funeral was the soil itself, which looks like dark chocolate and smells rich, like the forest after it rains. He also appreciated helping people remember a loved one in the way they chose. “After a while, the grieving process ends and it's more of an afterthought,” he says. “But to have some of this in my home, of my own folks…and to consciously, purposefully, remember them — it's an amazing thought.”

Over thirty people have already been fully composted and returned to their families or to Colorado farms, most of them directly through the Natural Funeral, with a few from Feldman Mortuary and another mortuary working with the company.

“We always talk about it in terms of gifts,” Viddal says. “The families are choosing, or the person themself is choosing, to give their body and give back to the earth. That's how we hope people will connect with these options.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire