A Sweet Solution

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A Herland grave with shitake mushrooms blooming between a baby chestnut tree and a string of daffodils

A key goal of our natural organic reduction process is to create compost that is optimized for delivering essential nutrients to plants and trees.  That involves operating the process in a way which breaks down the remains, not just to the point where the remains are no longer visible to the naked eye, but to continue the process down towards the atomic level.

Plants are not able to break down complex organic structures: in nature, that happens through  the action of detrivores such as fungii or by fire. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the ecology has evolved as a partnership between detrivores and fire, but instead of burning every few years, the forests have been kept from burning. That has resulted in a build up of fuel in the forest is so great that when a fire eventually does come through, it can burn with such intensity that everything is sterilized.

A fire that passes through quickly doesn’t harm the underground mycological network that is the forest’s circulation system. That fungal network distributes essential elements such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, boron, etc. from where they fall onto the forest floor back to the trees that need those elements in order to grow. 

Here’s me modeling the inside of a cradle that’s ready to receive a body

Our NOR vessels (we call them “cradles” since they rock back and forth like an old-timey cradle) is essentially a sealed, insulated coffin. Because we do this work outside in the forest‒instead of in a heated warehouse‒we focus attention on keeping the interior of the cradle at an optimum temperature.

Each of our cradles is fitted with a hydronic heating system that allows us to circulate hot water inside the cradle to “jump start” the process when the overnight temperatures get low enough to effectively “refrigerate” the remains.  Once the decomposition process is underway, the temperature inside the cradle is self-sustaining. Then, when the internal temperature eventually falls below 80ºF, we know that the initial decomposition stage is complete.

monitoring the core temp inside the cradle

The law requires that an NOR process has to hold the remains at 131ºF for at least three days. Our understanding is that the goal of this requirement is to ensure that the resulting compost does not contain any pathogenic bacteria such as e. coli or salmonella. That’s a goal that we’re fully in support of, but in the process of getting there, we don’t want to wipe out the beneficial bacteria that are doing the work that needs to happen.

And so, we let the process unfold at the temperature that the beneficial bacteria like best–between 100ºF and 115ºF–until the core temperature drops below 80ºF. At that point, we know what the initial phase of the reduction is complete. Then the next step is to ensure that any pathogenic organisms are eliminated.

wrapping a drum with the honey heater

At that point, the cradle is opened up and the reduced remains are transferred into open-top, 55 gallon drums. That’s where the “sweet solution” comes in. If you were to buy a 55 gallon drum of honey, it would be very difficult to get the viscous honey to flow out of the drum. So, what they do is to wrap the drum with a specially designed heating pad that heats up the honey to 145ºF. At that temp, the honey becomes fluid and can be drained out of the barrel.

So, we use a honey heater to raise the temperature of the drum of compost to over 131ºF for three days, thereby meeting the goal of eliminating any e.coli in the compost. The next step involves sending a sample of the treated compost to a state certified lab where it’s tested for e.coli and heavy metal content.  Once the lab certifies that the compost meets the Department of Health’s requirements, we can deliver the reduced remains to the family.

finished compost being held for pick up

 

Because our facility is located in the heart of 120 acres of forest, instead of in a rented, commercial building in an industrial park, we don’t have a problem with storing the reduced remains for an extended period of time. We want families to take delivery of the remains when it’s convenient for them, so we commit to holding the remains for up to a year from the start of the reduction. That way a family can complete the cycle when they’re ready.