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Washington Could Become the First State to Compost the Dead

A new bill wants to let you turn your loved ones into soil.

by Sarah Emerson
Jan 2 2019, 8:41pm

Image: Flickr/Jakub T. Jankiewicz

Elaborate death rituals are something that define our species, whether it’s a casket funeral or coexisting with a corpse. And now, Washington could become the first state to embrace another funerary practice by making it legal to compost the dead.

The method is called “recomposing” and claims to be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional burial or cremation. It involves rapidly decomposing a body and converting the remains into soil. That nutrient-rich material can then be used to grow trees, flowers, and other new life.

The alternative practice hinges on a bill that state senator Jamie Pedersen plans to introduce next month, according to NBC. It would legalize recomposing in Washington where burial and cremation are currently the only acceptable ways to dispose of human remains.

A public-benefit corporation, Recompose, is responsible for the actual composting. Conventional burial and cremation leave significant carbon footprints, Recompose says on its website. Burial consumes “valuable urban land” and can also pollute the air and soil with embalming fluids, separate research has found. While these choices generally cost upward of $7,000, Recompose claims it will only charge $5,500 to compost a body.

Recomposing is ideologically related to “green burial” wherein biodegradable urns are planted to grow trees. But Recompose’s method uses portable vessels for composting, and the “ashes” are intended to be taken home by a person’s family.

“The transformation of human to soil happens inside our reusable, hexagonal recomposition vessels,” Recompose states in an FAQ. “When the process has finished, families will be able to take home some of the soil created, while gardens on-site will remind us that all of life is interconnected.”

Recompose was founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Katrina Spade who previously led the Urban Death Project which espoused similar goals: making funeral rites sustainable and more affordable for Americans.

Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State University, is the head of research at Recompose. In 2017, the corporation funded a $75,000 program through the university that allowed Carpenter-Boggs to test the concept on six donor bodies.

The process utilizes a 5-foot-by-10-foot pod full of organic “tinder” such as straw and wood chips. Thermophilic or heat-loving microbes then metabolize the remains, maintaining an internal temperature of 131 degrees Fahrenheit within the vessel. The entire ritual takes one month, and produces a cubic yard of compost, according to Recompose.

It comes with some caveats—non-organic materials such as artificial hips will be screened for and recycled, Recompose says. And NBC notes that some pathogens may be resistant to the composting process, in which case people with certain illnesses may be ineligible.

Pederson unsuccessfully introduced a similar bill in 2017 and attributes its failure to opposition from religious groups, NBC reported.

The new legislation also aims to legalize alkaline hydrolysis, or the dissolving of bodies in water and lye. If passed, it would go into effect on May 1, 2020.