Composting humans? Could be legal in 2019

Don’t want your human remains leaching toxic chemicals into the ground when you die?

Don’t want to be cremated because of the impact on global warming?

Don’t want to take up space in cemeteries?

Just want to save money on the expense of coffins and burials?

Or, maybe the prospect of “becoming a tree” or having a “different alternative” farewell to the world has you motivated for a new option to the old routine of dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

Washington state residents may be given the opportunity to be “human recomposting” pioneers as early as the 2019 legislative year when the bill is introduced this month.

“People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves,” explains state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat, who is sponsoring the bill in Washington’s Legislature to expand the options for disposing of human remains. How does it work?

The process is not as green as it may sound. It uses alkaline hydrolysis, a process of dissolving of bodies in a pressurized vessel with water and lye until just liquid and bone remains. Then the “human recomposition” products is ready to rejoin the earth as life-nourishing soil.

The process involves placing unembalmed human remains wrapped in a shroud in a 5-foot-by-10-foot cylindrical vessel with a bed of organic material such as wood chips, alfalfa and straw. Air is then periodically pulled into the vessel, providing oxygen to accelerate microbial activity. Within approximately one month, the remains are reduced to a cubic yard of compost that can be used to grow new plants.

Pedersen sees recomposition as an environmental and a social justice issue. He said allowing it would particularly benefit people who can’t afford a funeral or aren’t comfortable with cremation.

Yet it hardly comes at a bargain price at $5,500. A traditional burial costs about $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. (Cremation can cost less than $1,000, though that doesn’t include a service or an urn.)

Whose big idea was this?

Meet Katrina Spade, 41, a Seattle-based designer who started focusing on the idea in 2013 while working on her master’s in architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“We really only have two easily accessible options in the U.S. — cremation and burial,” she said. “And the question is: Why do we only have two options, and what would it look like if we had a dozen?”

Spade’s initial goal was to design a system that would restore people’s connection to death and its aftermath, which she said had been severed in part by the funeral industry. A friend introduced her to the farming practice of composting livestock after they die. Called mortality composting, the practice has been shown to safely keep pathogens from contaminating the land, while creating a richer soil.

“It was like a lightbulb went off and I started to envision a system that uses the same principles as mortality composting … that would be meaningful and appropriate for human beings,” she said.

Recompose, a public-benefit corporation Spade founded in 2017 to expand research and development of her concept, recently co-sponsored a $75,000 pilot program through Washington State University.

Led by researcher Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, associate professor of sustainable and organic agriculture at Washington State, the five-month program recomposed six donor bodies in a carefully controlled environment, aiming to allay concerns about spreading pathogens.

The research concluded in August, and the recomposition of human remains was found to be safe, according to Carpenter-Boggs, who plans to submit her results for publication in 2019. (Recomposition isn’t for everyone — some pathogens, like the bacteria that cause anthrax, are known to survive composting in animals, so recomposition’s safety will depend on excluding people with certain illnesses.)

In addition, an earlier version of the bill received opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

Thomas Parker, a former lobbyist for the Washington State Catholic Conference, said the church was concerned about dissolved human remains draining into sewers.

Pedersen has signed up several co-sponsors of the bill in the state Senate, which is now under Democratic control, and he’s optimistic about its chances. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has not taken a public position on the bill and did not respond to a request for comment. If the bill passes, it would take effect May 1, 2020.

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