Washington State Legalises Human Composting As Eco-Friendly Alternative

Nina Golgowski

Washington residents will soon have another eco-friendly alternative over cremation or burial: human composting. 

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday passed a bill that will allow residents to undergo either human composting or alkaline hydrolysis, a process that breaks down bodies using lye and heat.

Alkaline hydrolysis is already legal in several states though Washington will be the first to allow human composting, The Seattle Times reported. Both processes, which will be legal starting May 1, 2020, will have to be performed by a licensed facility. 

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of compost material left from the decomposition of a cow. It would take about a month to break down a human body.

Advocates of the alternative methods have argued that both are more environmentally friendly, cheaper and use less energy than cremation or ground burial.

“These practices consume valuable urban land, pollute the air and soil, and contribute to climate change,” states a website for Seattle company Recompose, which plans to be one of the first companies to offer human composting services. “We estimate that a metric ton of CO2 will be saved each time someone chooses recomposition over cremation or conventional burial.”

Composting humans will also prevent embalming fluid and other toxins from seeping into the ground and potentially contaminating water supplies, the company argues.

Spade displays a sample of the compost material from the decomposition of a cow (left) and some of the combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw used in the process (right).

Recompose’s facility will feature reusable hexagonal recomposition vessels that will create about a cubic yard of soil per person with the help of wood chips, alfalfa, straw and microbes. It’s expected to take a month for a body’s breakdown to be fully complete ― bones and all.

“Friends and family are welcome to take some (or all) home to grow a tree or a garden. Any remaining soil will go to nourish conservation land in the Puget Sound region,” Recompose’s website states. 

The composting service is said to cost about $5,500, which is typically more than the cost of cremation and less than burial in a casket, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Requests for so-called green burials, which include biodegradable materials and formaldehyde-free embalming, have been on the rise, according to a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association.

Green burials are on the rise. Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery committee chairwoman Suzanne Kelly points out a burial mound in the cemetery's natural burial ground in Rhinebeck, New York, located 80 miles north of New York City.

The late actor Luke Perry was recently in the news after his daughter revealed that he was buried in a biodegradable mushroom suit as one of his final wishes.

The suit, manufactured by a company called Coeio, covers the body with mushroom spores. The mushrooms then help break down the body as well as remove toxins that would otherwise seep into the environment, according to the company’s website.

There are other green burial options available, including having one’s ashes turned into an artificial reef formation or having it mixed into plant soil to create a “living memorial.” One such company that does this, Let Your Love Grow, states that high pH and sodium levels from ashes alone will prevent plants from growing, so its product balances the soil levels.

Mary Lauren Fraser stands beside a biodegradable casket she hand-wove from willow, in Montague, Massachusetts.

If any of these methods sound too taboo, Seattle mortuary attorney Emily Albrecht, who hosts a blog called Funeral Law Lady, notes that though cremation dates back at least 20,000 years, it was a radical and in some places illegal procedure in the late 19th century.

There had been only two recorded instances of cremation in North America before 1800, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Its website notes that the United States’ first crematory was built in 1876 in Washington, Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t until 1963 that the Catholic Church permitted cremation for its parishioners, though with limitations.

More information about green burials is available on the Green Burial Council’s website.