In a move that’s being hailed as a positive step by environmentalists, Washington has become the first state to legalize the composting of human remains, offering people a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial or cremation.
Governor Jay Inslee, who has prioritized climate and environmental causes since coming into office, signed the bill on Tuesday. The law will allow those who die in Washington after May of next year, to have their bodies turned into soil through a process called recomposition—colloquially referred to as “human composting.” The bill explains that the process is a “contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”
Katrina Spade, who lobbied for the bill and helped develop the recomposition process through her Seattle-based company Recompose, told AFP:
“Recomposition offers an alternative to embalming and burial or cremation that is natural, safe, sustainable, and will result in significant savings in carbon emissions and land usage.
“The idea of returning to nature so directly and being folded back into the cycle of life and death is actually pretty beautiful.”
Spade detailed the process, which her company will be the first to offer, to KIRO:
“(The) body is covered in natural materials, like straw or wood chips, and over the course of about three to seven weeks, thanks to microbial activity, it breaks down into soil.”
As the body is broken down in a steel container over the course of 30 days, bereaved family members will be able to visit the facility and eventually receive two wheelbarrows of soil, which they can then use in a manner of their choosing, such as planting flowers or trees.
The approach was developed in conjunction with Washington State University, which conducted clinical trials with six donor bodies.
“We proved recomposition was indeed safe and effective for humans as well.”
How to compost a human body: @AFPgraphics takes a look at the process
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 22, 2019
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who sponsored the bill, said that the disposal method is far more environmentally friendly than traditional burial or cremation methods. He explained:
“It’s about time we apply some technology, allow some technology to be applied to this universal human experience … because we think that people should have the freedom to determine for themselves how they’d like their body to be disposed of.”
Typical burials are costly affairs and carry a huge economic burden for bereaved families, who must pay between $8,000 and $25,000. Cremation can cost more than $6,000. Spade, however, hopes to charge only $5,500.
Funeral Consumers Alliance Director Joshua Slocum told The Seattle Times:
“I think this is great. In this country, we have a massively dysfunctional relationship with death, which does not make good principles for public policy. Disposition of the dead, despite our huge emotional associations with it, is not—except in very rare cases—a matter of public health and public safety. It’s a real tough thing for people to get their minds around, and a lot of our state laws stand in the way of people returning to simple, natural, uncomplicated, inexpensive ways of doing things.”
From an environmental standpoint, it remains inarguable that traditional burials carry a number of ecological drawbacks. As the Smithsonian explained:
“Each after-death action comes with its own set of environmental impacts, from embalming chemicals that leach into groundwater to transportation emissions. Many cremation facilities lack modern filtration systems and spew carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere. Cemeteries themselves carry an environmental cost: Many depend on fertilizers and large amounts of water to maintain that clipped, mowed look.”
For Spade, the next goal will be to build the first “organic reduction” funeral home in the U.S., which she hopes will be the start of a new trend in the country that makes ecological and scientific sense rather than blindly clinging to old traditions.
Spade told The Seattle Times:
“I feel so happy… I can’t believe we’ve come all this way, but here we are.”