In most parts of the United States, the options for disposing of human remains are fairly limited. Some bodies are destined to be buried in cemeteries; others head for the crematorium. But as of today, a third option is now legal in Washington—human composting—making the state the first in the country to greenlight the practice.
The new legislation, signed into law this morning by Governor Jay Inslee, has yet to take effect. But in May of 2020, licensed facilities in Washington will be able to offer “natural organic reduction” of human bodies. Also included in the law are provisions that allow a procedure called alkaline hydrolysis (sometimes called “liquid cremation”)—which uses heat, pressure, water, and chemicals like lye to break down remains—that’s already legal in 19 other states.
“Aboveground decomposition,” however, is brand new. In a process reminiscent of the composting of food, human composting will mix bodies with substances such as wood chips and straw, transforming the slurry into soil over the course of several weeks.
After death, bodies naturally decompose. But this practice, inspired by a similar technique used by farmers to dispose of livestock, is intended to speed up the natural transition of human remains into organic matter. Researchers at Washington State University conducted a pilot project to test the idea last year, using the bodies of six donors who had previously given consent. The trial was considered a success, producing an odorless soil that met federal and state guidelines regulating public exposure to pathogens and pollutants, reports Brendan Kiley at The Seattle Times.
If desired, the final product can be returned to families to be spread like ashes, or support the growth of plant life.
The method has been called a greener alternative to burial and cremation, both of which place “a serious weight on the Earth and the environment,” Senator Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure, told the Associated Press.
Landscaping and maintaining cemetery plots consume valuable land, and the burial process often involves chemical embalming and the placement of bodies in nearly indestructible coffins. And though cremated remains tend to be more compact, crematoriums have been criticized for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
In recent years, so-called “green” burials, in which unembalmed bodies are buried in biodegradable shrouds, have gained in popularity across the country. While the practice sidesteps some aspects of environmental pollution, it still requires cemetery land, which isn’t always readily available, especially in more developed parts of the United States.
That’s where human composting could come in as “the urban equivalent to natural burial,” Katrina Spade, the designer and architect who pioneered the practice, told the Associated Press. Spade has transformed her venture into a company called Recompose, which is now working to build the country’s first “organic reduction” funeral home in Seattle.
From a financial standpoint, the price tag of human composting stands roughly in between those of its two predecessors. Cremation can cost less than $1,000, but families often spend upwards of $10,000 on funerals.
The practice, however, is not without controversy, and Pedersen has already received emails condemning human composting as undignified and disgusting, he told the Associated Press.
“I think some people were fine with it, others were not so fine with it,” Rob Goff, the executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association (WSFDA), told Kiley at The Seattle Times. “But it all boils down to personal choice for the families we’re serving.”