Back to Earth: Washington set to allow ‘human composting’

Posted at 4:46 PM, Apr 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-22 18:46:04-04

OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON – Washington appears set to become the first state to allow a burial alternative known as “natural organic reduction.”

The alternative is an accelerated decomposition process that turns bodies into soil within weeks.

The bill legalizing the process, sometimes referred to as “human composting,” has passed the Legislature and is headed to the desk of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

If signed into law, the new alternative would take effect on May 1, 2020.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said that while they are still reviewing the bill, “this seems like a thoughtful effort to soften our footprint,” on the Earth.

The natural organic reduction process yields a cubic yard of soil per body- that’s enough to fill about two large wheelbarrows.

The same laws that apply to scattered cremated remains apply to the soil: Relatives can keep the soil in urns, use it to plant a tree on private property, or spread it on public land in the state as long as they comply with existing permissions regarding remains.

“It is sort of astonishing that you have this completely universal human experience — we’re all going to die — and here’s an area where technology has done nothing for us. We have the two means of disposing of human bodies that we’ve had for thousands of years, burying and burning,” Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen said. “It just seems like an area that is ripe for having technology help give us some better options than we have used.”

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, was a graduate student in architecture when she came up with the idea- modeling it on the practice farmers have used for decades to dispose of livestock.

Spade modified the process a bit and found using wood chips, alfalfa and straw create a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated.

Six human bodies, all donors who Spade said wanted to be part of this study, were reduced to soil during a pilot project at Washington State University last year. The transformation from body to soil took between four and seven weeks, Spade said.

A price for the service hasn’t been set yet, but the Recompose website states the company’s “goal is to build a sustainable business to make recomposition a permanent death care option, serve people for decades to come, and make our services available to all who want them.”

According to the Cremation Association of North America, Washington state’s cremation rate is the highest in the nation. More than 78% of those who died in the state in 2017 were cremated, and that number is expected to increase in more than 82% in 2022.

In Colorado, 70% of people who died in 2016 were cremated. Colorado ranked ninth on the list of top ten states with the highest percentage of cremations.

Spade said she doesn’t want to replace cremation or burial, but instead offer a meaningful alternative that is also environmentally friendly.

“Our goal is to provide something that is as aligned with the natural cycle as possible, but still realistic in being able to serve a good number of families and not take up as much land as burial will,” Spade said.

Senator Pendersen said he thinks he may still want a marker in a cemetery when he dies but said he is drawn to the idea of his body taking up less space with a process like natural organic reduction.

“I think it’s really a lovely way of exiting the earth,” Pendersen said.

Pedersen’s bill also would authorize in Washington state the use of alkaline hydrolysis — already used in 19 other states including Colorado — using heat, pressure, water, and chemicals like lye to reduce remains to components of liquid and bone similar to cremated ashes that can be kept in urns or interred.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)