When Americans die, most are buried or cremated. Washington could soon become the first state to allow another option: human composting.
The novel approach, known as “recomposition,” involves placing bodies in a vessel and hastening their decomposition into a nutrient-dense soil that can then be returned to families. The aim is a less expensive way of dealing with human remains that is better for the environment than burial, which can leach chemicals into the ground, or cremation, which releases earth-warming carbon dioxide.
“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,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat, who is sponsoring a bill in Washington’s Legislature to expand the options for disposing of human remains. The recomposition bill would also make Washington the 17th state to allow alkaline hydrolysis, the dissolving of bodies in a pressurized vessel with water and lye until just liquid and bone remains. Pedersen plans to introduce the bill when the new legislative session begins next month.
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. Recompose aims to charge $5,500 for its services, while a traditional burial generally cost more than $7,000 in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. (Cremation can cost less than $1,000, though that doesn’t include a service or an urn.)
The push to allow composting of human remains originates with 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.
She worked with researchers at Western Carolina University and the University of Washington to turn her vision, which she dubbed “recomposition,” into reality. 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.