His body ravaged by cancer and years of multiple sclerosis, Steve Wheeler knew he had only a short time left on earth when he recorded a YouTube video in his Lake Elmo home.
Yet he was upbeat. He knew what would happen to his body. In the state of Washington, he would be composted above ground and turned into dense, fertile soil, the greenest possible route to the hereafter, he figured.
"With this act I can at least go out on a high note and say I have left the world just a little bit better than when I found it," Wheeler said into the camera, with a smile.
The practice known as human composting has found a following among those who want a greener alternative to cremation or a traditional burial. Seven states — Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, California, New York and Nevada — allow the practice.
Legislation that would legalize human composting in Minnesota was proposed this spring. While it wasn't successful, a study of the practice was included in a separate measure that imposed a moratorium on new "green burials." Residents wanted to stop a proposed green burial spot in Blackhoof Township south of Duluth. But the moratorium could potentially affect burials in Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, which tend to be greener and typically don't involve embalming, for example.
The research hasn't yet started and is due by February 2025, said Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) spokesman Garry Bowman.
"Essentially, MDH is to study the environmental and health impacts of green burials and human composting, and to make recommendations regarding location, distance from water, burial depth, density of burials, etc.," Bowman said.
The Wheelers found a way around Minnesota's prohibition of human composting, thanks to Twin Cities-based Mueller Memorial Funeral Home and Cremation. Wheeler had first called the company in March, and discovered it was interested in the practice as well.
Mueller Memorial spokeswoman Taelor Johnson had been at a conference on the topic in Denver days earlier. Wheeler's phone call was "the biggest coincidence," she said.
"The ball just got rolling," Johnson said.
Wheeler's widow, Katie Wheeler, said she and their two daughters, ages 16 and 18, are still coping with Steve's death. For 20 years he had taught social studies at Mahtomedi High School, and lived with multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed last year with a neuroendocrine tumor on his pancreas.
They had a funeral party in July in Steve's final months, where some 100 people from across the country gathered in his honor to enjoy pizza at the Market at Malcolm Yards in Minneapolis.
"People were just so struck … about how many peoples' lives he impacted in such a positive way," Katie said. "He was an incredible man."
In a world dominated by cremation, including about 70% of deaths in Minnesota, the Wheelers saw an opportunity to go greener. Cremation is typically an energy-intensive process that generates as much as 540 pounds of carbon dioxide, by some estimates.
Throughout history, human bodies have undergone natural composting after burial. In the managed version, also called natural organic reduction, remains are placed in vessels with wood chips and other natural ingredients and exposed to air, all of which speeds up the decay.
Steve Wheeler died at home Sept. 12 at age 53. Mueller Memorial arranged to transport his remains by air to Return Home, a human composting business near Seattle.
Mueller Memorial may be the first Minnesota company to play a role, handling two human composts so far, Johnson said.
The term "green burial" covers a range of practices, but usually requires a plot of land for a final resting place. Buried bodies can take as long as 20 years to decompose because of the lack of air flow, Johnson said.
Container composting at Return Home in Washington combines remains with organic alfalfa, hay and sawdust. A small amount of bacteria is inserted into the nasal cavity to ensure the brain breaks down, according to Return Home. Microbes immediately get to work. The bodies heat up to 131 to 150 degrees.
Johnson and Mueller Memorial funeral director Mandy Stafford flew to Washington for a ceremony that was live-streamed for family members back home. Steve's body was covered by an organic gown. Rihanna's "Lift Me Up" played, as Steve wanted. More straw and alfalfa were put on top. Christmas cards were taped to one side of his vessel.
The breakdown of the body takes up to 90 days. Any hard tissue left will be milled down and reincorporated. Anything like a stent will be removed and recycled.
Steve's remains will turn into about 250 pounds of rich, clean compost.
Said Johnson: "It smells like clean air."
Katie Wheeler will eventually get some of that soil. Most of it will probably be spread out in a prairie restoration project by Return Home in Washington, she said. A small amount will come back to her in Minnesota, but she hasn't decided what to do with it yet.
"I'd like to plant something with it — a tree or maybe some flowers in our yard," she said. "He was so excited about it, he couldn't stop talking about it."
She plans to hold a service for Steve on his birthday, Nov. 18, in Minnesota.