Human Composting Soon to Be Allowed in Washington

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CC BY 2.0. Brian Boucheron – It takes 4-7 weeks to transform a body into rich soil.

It's a more environmentally-friendly way to dispose of a body than burning or burying.

Do you know what will happen to your body when you die? For most people, this involves choosing between cremation and traditional burial, but if you live in the state of Washington, you may soon have a third option. 'Natural organic reduction,' or human composting, as it's often called, is the subject of a new bill, expected to be signed into law shortly by Governor Jay Inslee.

People are ready for change, said the bill's sponsor Jamie Pederson, a Democratic senator from Seattle. He told the Associated Press,

"It is sort of astonishing that you have this completely universal human experience — we’re all going to die — and here’s an area where technology has done nothing for us. We have the two means of disposing of human bodies that we’ve had for thousands of years, burying and burning. It just seems like an area that is ripe for having technology help give us some better options than we have used."

Katrina Spade is one person who has been working hard on this technology. She founded Recompose, a Washington-based company that specializes in human composting. The idea occurred to her when she was in graduate school and saw farmers disposing of animal bodies in this way. From the Associated Press:

"She modified that process a bit, and found that the use of wood chips, alfalfa and straw creates a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated."

Last year she conducted a study using six bodies of people who'd said they wanted to be part of the project, and found that the bodies decomposed within 4 to 7 weeks, yielding about two wheelbarrows' worth of soil (1 cubic yard). Even bones and teeth are gone within that time period. At the end of 30 days, the soil is screened for non-organics like pacemakers, metal fillings, and artificial limbs, and these are recycled as best as possible.

Spade believes there's an eager market due to growing concern about climate change. Both traditional burial and cremation are notoriously bad for the environment. The former relies on formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to embalm bodies. Spade told Forbes that it is an outdated process:

"Many people think of [embalming] as a centuries-old tradition, but it became popular in the U.S. only during the Civil War. A couple of enterprising young people invented and marketed it to soldiers on the battlefield as a way to get their bodies home to their families – for advance payment. They used arsenic instead of formaldehyde back then."

Caskets are made of steel and wood, and buried on plots of land that people purchase, presumably for eternity, which Spade finds odd in this time of increasing space constraints, particularly in urban areas. Cremation isn't much better. It uses less land, but emits over 600 million tons of CO2 annually, as well as particulate matter.

Human composting, by contrast, gives you a usable product (soil) that can be dispensed of similarly to cremated remains, minus the burning. Spade believes that, "with our last gesture, we can give back to the earth and reconnect with the natural cycles."

Gov. Inslee is expected to sign the bill because his office has referred to it as "a thoughtful effort to soften our footprint," and Inslee is hoping to earn a name as an environmentally-conscious politician. It would go against his image to reject the bill. If it does go though, it will take effect on May 1, 2020.