Washington becomes first state to legalize human composting

May 20, 2019, 5:05 PM | Updated: May 21, 2019, 3:27 pm

Recompose Seattle, human composting...

Katrina Spade with Recompose Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Right now, when people die in Washington state there are two options: Burial and cremation. But, a third option is now available under a bill signed by Governor Inslee Tuesday.

Legislature weighs human composting measure

“An alternative to cremation and burial that lets bodies get transformed into soil that families can then use to nourish a garden or grow a tree,” according to Katrina Spade of Recompose, a Seattle-based company expected to be the first to offer the option.

Spade explained the idea behind Recompose’s human composting in detail.

What Recompose is doing, is basically allowing an accelerated natural decomposition. Imagine what’s happening on the forest floor and dead organic material decomposes and turns into soil. You have your leaf litter, you’ve got some sticks and maybe an errant chipmunk, and all those things decompose naturally and create the top soil that we depend on. Natural organic reduction is very similar to that process, but it’s done inside what we call a vessel or a container so it’s very highly controlled, and it happens a little bit faster than what we see on the forest floor.

It’s a roughly 30-day process.

“The basic way this happens is we create a bed inside the vessel of wood chips and alfalfa and straw, and then we lay the body on top of that and cover it with more of the same,” Spade explained. “We close the door to this container, and then provide oxygen via a basic fan system for the next month, and that is basically creating a perfect environment for microbial activity to break down the body, wood chips, alfalfa, and straw,”

Spade says the same process is already done with farm animals, and a Washington State University study found it was also safe to do this with humans.

“What we were looking at is sort of the big three: Can we ensure that this process is safe for pathogens, which are dangerous diseases. Can we ensure that it’s safe for heavy metals, like mercury in our fillings? And what happens with pharmaceuticals? So, we worked with researchers at Washington State University to basically check off those three, and ensure that the process was indeed safe for humans as well,” Spade said.

It was.

“The process is safe for doing, and the material you get back and families will get back is like … a bag of top soil that you would by at your local nursery; it’s light, it’s fluffy, it smells like beautiful soil, and it’s totally safe to put on your rose garden or grow a tree with,” Spade said.

This would allow people to use this soil of their loved one to plant trees, or spread it out in their own yards and in other places.

But, as Washington’s laws change to allow this, regulation is key.

That means that soil created from this process will be regulated the same way cremated ashes are, where permission from a land owner is required before spreading any remains. This will all be regulated by the Department of Licensing and by the Funeral Board of Washington State.

Spade stressed that people cannot do human composting in their yards — they can only use the soil they get from the licensed facility in their yards. But, they don’t even have to do that.

“We know that some families won’t want all of the soil, and we don’t want people to feel that they should be burdened by it,” said Spade. “So we’re actually creating partnerships with local non-profits that have conservation land. So say, they have a forest they’re actually trying to restore and actually need nutrients, and that person’s soil could actually go and help restore that forest, and it can be a nice place to also visit and kind of be reminded of the person that you loved and lost.”

As for the ick factor some might feel…

“You know in the 1960s cremation was a very weird idea. If you said you were going to cremate your grandmother in 1960 someone might be like, ‘seriously?’ I hope that we enjoy the same kind of rise in popularity as cremation does,” Spade said.

“In a lot of ways they’re a similar process: Your body goes into a vessel of sorts, and comes out a different material which your family can then use — ashes or soil. It’s really very similar process in a lot of ways, but of course natural organic reduction has a much lighter footprint on the earth,” she added.

Under the bill, human composting would become legal in Washington state in May, 2020. Spade says it will take a year or two for Recompose to open the facility, and get all the regulation and licensing in place before it is available to the public.

Once it is, the option is expected to cost around $5,500. For context, the cost of a typical burial (i.e. embalming, transportation, headstones, caskets, etc.), can often run up around $9,000, while cremation can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $8,000 (depending on the state and services rendered).

Green burials can feel raw, cathartic

Spade expects to have the capacity to human compost 750 people a year when Recompose Seattle is up and running, but will be able to expand should demand rise.

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