Advocates say ‘human composting’ an eco-friendly alternative to burial, cremation

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Grandpa’s old apple tree has a whole new meaning.

This year, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to legalize natural organic reduction, a process of converting human remains into soil that has been casually referred to as “human composting.”

Senate Bill 5001 offers two new post-death alternatives to burial and cremation, the only legal options available in Washington.

“The main purpose is to provide more options to people in terms of how they can dispose of their own remains and those of their loved ones,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who pre-filed the bill. “There are people who are very troubled by the environmental consequences with the current means of disposing with remains.”

In addition to natural organic reduction, or recomposition, as it is called in S.B. 5001, the bill also allows a process called alkaline hydrolysis, which dissolves bodies using potassium hydroxide or lye in a pressurized vessel. Alkaline hydrolysis is already legal in more than 15 states, but recomposition likely isn’t legal anywhere in the world, according to a New York Times story.

“It’s just amazing that we have this completely universal experience of dying and we live in a world that has been transformed over 100 years, or 50 years, or 10 years, or even five years by technology — and yet technology has not really helped us with this universal experience of what to do with dead bodies,” Pedersen said. “Because the law continues to say — or at least it will until next May — continues to say that the only permitted means of disposing with remains are burial and burning, which have been with us for thousands of years.”

Pedersen said cremation and burial are more costly and worse for the environment than recomposition, which involves placing a body in a vessel with mostly wood chips and straw. The vessel is then turned gently over 30 days and a stream of warm air is applied, Pedersen said, with about two wheelbarrows worth of soil returned at the end.

Families can then spread that material as they see fit, said Katrina Spade, who founded Recompose and aims to open the first recomposition facility in Seattle in late 2020.

“We have this beautiful, nutrient-rich soil, let’s go grow a tree that generations of our family can know came from this one person. It’s a really nice way to leave a legacy,” Spade said.

Spade explained that for every person who chooses recomposition over cremation or burial, about a metric ton of carbon will be saved. Washington State University conducted a study last year on six donated bodies and found that recomposition is safe and effective. Pedersen said that at a bill hearing, one woman who was a friend of one of those six who donated their body, testified her friend found comfort in leaving the Earth in an environmentally friendly way. That woman’s soil was spread in a garden.

“On the one hand, it’s sacred. It feels very important, the material we’re creating,” Spade said of the soil. “On the other hand, it’s just soil. We get to cease to be human in the process. Molecular change happens, and we get to be back to nature. It’s an interesting paradox to be very simply dirt and be sacred.”

Spade started pondering recomposition in graduate school while considering her own mortality, and how she wasn’t fond of either cremation or burial.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, also sponsored the bill. Pedersen called her an “early and enthusiastic” proponent of the bill. Rivers didn’t respond to calls or a text from The Columbian. Spade said people from Clark County can send remains to the Seattle facility and have the soil returned to them.

Pedersen said the response to the bill has been generally positive. It passed the House and Senate easily with bipartisan support. Pedersen said some concerns come from not understanding the process of recomposition.

“Part of the problem is that a lot of people when they hear ‘composting’ have this vision in their mind of Uncle Mel or grandpa being thrown out in the backyard in a heap of food scraps with the extra carrots and beef stew tossed on top of him left to rot,” Pedersen said. “Obviously, that’s very different from the process that’s approved.”

Pedersen has heard from government officials in California and as far away as New York, who are interested in recomposition. He thinks the idea will continue to spread. He added that he would consider recomposition when he dies, although he called himself traditional and said he still might like some kind of marker with his soil. Spade knows this is the option she wants.

“This is the option I want, but I think the caveat is I would like to stick around for another 30, 40, 50 years,” Spade said with a laugh. “So it’s hard for me to really put myself in that position, but I absolutely would choose to be reduced via natural organic reduction for sure.”

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