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With 'Human Composting' Legislation, Washington State Could Offer Alternatives to Burials

The Lake View Cemetery in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The Lake View Cemetery in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Cascade Creatives/Shutterstock

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After passing the legislature last week, a bill that provides alternatives to cremation and traditional burials is headed to the governor.

For thousands of years, most civilizations have upheld two common traditions for their dead: a ceremony, like a funeral, and a sacred place for resting, like a cemetery. These practices have changed and evolved over time, but the process for dying looks much the same now as it did in the age of your great-great-great grandmother.

Washington state residents could get a truly different option if a bill recently approved by the legislature is signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. The state would become the first to allow the composting of human bodies.

Human composting is exactly what it sounds like. Through a 30-day aerated process in which the body sits in a reusable vessel with a mixture of alfalfa, straw, and wood chips, decomposition creates rich soil, according to a company that wants to offer the service in Seattle. Once the process is complete, families are given the option to take the soil home for their own gardens, or donate it to a conservation site. The designer who created this method, Katrina Spade, calls it “recomposition,” and has spent years advocating for it to become legal.

She found a partner in Washington State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who last month filed the bill to legalize human composting, or natural organic reduction, as well as a process called alkaline hydrolysis.

In 2017, Pedersen unsuccessfully introduced a bill to make Washington the seventeenth state to allow alkaline hydrolysis, a method which dissolves bodies in lye. The bill was brought to him by the People’s Memorial Association, an organization in his Seattle district that aims to reduce the cost of funerals.

“In some ways, this is a story about how geography influences the legislative process,” Pedersen told Route Fifty. “Katrina Spade lives a block away from me. The People’s Memorial Association is three blocks from her. We’re all in the same neighborhood.”

If the bill is signed and human composting becomes legal in 2020, it may be the most affordable death option for Washington residents. The average funeral costs around $8,000, even as lower-budget options like Costco caskets enter the market. In Pedersen and Spade’s neighborhood of Capitol Hill, the Lake View Cemetery is nearly full with over 40,000 people—and as a result, a burial there could cost almost $5,000.

Spade has said her company, Recompose, will commit to making death less of a financial drain on families, has created a community fund to ensure feasibility for low-income people.

Reduced cost is only one of the benefits of human composting. Proponents say the process is greener than traditional options, using one-eighth the energy of cremation and forgoing entirely the 30 million board feet of wood, 104,000 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of concrete used in U.S. burials each year. The process also eliminates the need to use formaldehyde, a carcinogen and the main ingredient in embalming fluid.

Spade noted that composting saves over a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person who chooses it over cremation. That is particularly significant in a state that already leads the country in cremation rates, at 76.4%, compared to a 50.2% national average.

“If you can get a significant number of people to do natural organic reduction, that is going to make a big difference on our environment,” Pedersen said.

Human composting or other alternatives may also relieve the strain on overpacked cemeteries in some areas, which already struggle to find new burial plots as the number of deaths per day in the U.S. has risen to over 7,500.

A bipartisan majority in both sides of Washington’s legislature supported Pedersen’s measure last week. The proposal received the support of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, which requested that the government regulate recomposition in the same way it does other burial practices. As Pedersen noted, “even for funeral homes, this provides a new business opportunity.” The main opposition came from the Catholic Church, which wrote a letter of disagreement but did not testify at the hearing for the bill.

Inslee hasn’t definitively said whether he will sign the bill, but spokeswoman Jaime Smith told the Washington Post that “this seems like a thoughtful effort to soften our footprint.” Spade told Route Fifty in an email that her company has received over 1,000 inquiries from people planning ahead for their own deaths.

Pedersen said that in introducing this bill, he wants to provide as many options as possible to Washington residents, including natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis. “It’s a great irony that we all have this universal experience with death, and we are in a world that has been transformed by technology, and yet the only means of disposal are the two we’ve had for thousands of years: burying and burning,” he said. “Washington, as a hub for innovation, is the perfect place to try new technologies in order to return people to soil in this natural way.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor at Route Fifty.

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