- Washington is the first state to legalize human composting as an after-death alternative to cremation or burial.
- This method turns human remains into nutrient-rich topsoil in 4 to 7 weeks.
- Aiming to give residents ample options that align with their diverse values, the bill also legalizes water cremation.
When someone dies, usually their remains are processed in one of two ways: burial in a casket or cremation by intense heat.
Recently, Washington state became the first state to add “natural organic reduction,” also known as "human composting" or “recomposition” to its list of legal options.
Human composting is an accelerated method of turning human remains into in 1 cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil. That’s around three to four wheelbarrows full of soil.
If the thought of putting soil from Grandma’s remains on your vegetable beds might make you squeamish, advocates point out the soil can be left at places similar to how someone might spread a loved one's ashes a meaningful location.
The soil can be used by conservation groups to help a nearby park or forest favored by the deceased.
Human composting is also a more natural and sustainable option than burial or cremation, according to supporters.
This option joins a growing trend to eschew traditional burial or cremation in favor of innovative ways to dispose of the deceased. In several states, including Washington, another option called alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, where the remains are dissolved by a mixture of chemicals, has also been signed into law.
How human composting works
Designer and entrepreneur Katrina Spade is the brainchild behind human composting. Spade founded Recompose, a human composting company, and has spent more than 5 years developing and testing the technique.
Human composting will take place at designated facilities, like Recompose’s future Seattle location.
There, a body will be placed inside a vessel filled with wood chips and straw. Combined with a careful balance of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and moisture, these materials speed up and support microbial activity, which breaks down the remains on a molecular level.
“With the aerated process, oxygen is a really important piece, because essentially what we’re doing is creating the right environment for microbes to do their job,” Spade told CityLab.
The material is also mixed several times during decomposition to make sure it's thorough.
This accelerated composting process transforms a body into safe, usable, and odorless soil in 4 to 7 weeks. That soil can then be taken home by loved ones, or used to nourish public lands.
In 2018, Recompose partnered with Washington State University to run a pilot study of human composting, using the remains of six people who donated their remains for that specific research.
Using the Recompose method, the study found that human composting was effective. The resulting soil was nutrient-rich and complied with all federal and state safety guidelines for pathogens and pollutants, such as metals.
While the concept may seem novel or shocking, some people say it’s one of the oldest methods known to man.
“Recompose gets as close to the natural process of decomposition [as] you’d assume a body would undergo before we had an industrialized society,” Troy Hottle, a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an advisor to Recompose, told the Seattle Times.
Is human composting better for the environment?
Cremation rates are rising steadily and are currently at 53.8 percent nationally, according to Barbara Kemmis, Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America. She tells Healthline that families turn to cremation because of the lower price than burials, which is about the total cost but also perceived value.
“In many cases families are choosing cremation and then spending their budget on the memorial service or celebration of life,” Kemmis said.
Ultimately, Americans are considering alternatives that are outside the norm in order to best represent their values and those of their loved ones.
One of those considerations is environmental.
In fact, interest in green funerals among 40-year-olds rose from 43 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in 2015, according to a 2015 Funeral and Memorial Information Council study.
Human composting might appeal on those green grounds to a majority of Americans.
It uses one-eighth of the energy of cremation, and saves over a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person, according to Recompose.
Put into tangible terms by Recompose, if every Washington resident chose recomposition as their after-death preference, within 10 years, it would save the same amount of energy required to power 54,000 homes for a year.
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who supported legalizing human composting, was introduced to the concept by environmentally minded residents.
“[Constituents in my district] came to me asking for a more environmentally friendly, less carbon-intensive way to care for their remains and the remains of their loved ones,” Macri shared with Healthline.
An eco-friendly death
More than just a focus on going green after death, the legislation opened up two additional options to Washington residents to allow them to make personal after-death choices that are right for them.
“The public are seeking new traditions. Options are good and to the benefit of the public. These trends are driven by public interest versus business interest,” Kemmis explained.
Macri echoed the excitement over new end-of-life options that expand her constituents' choices.
"The fact that human composting is so much more environmentally friendly than cremation and burial is an extra bonus,” she added.