Washington on track to be first state to allow human composting

Credit: Foundry/Pixabay

Credit: Foundry/Pixabay

What began as a passion project, and then became a new company is now the focus of a bill moving through the Washington State Legislature.

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Senate Bill 5001 would allow for human composting, also known as "recomposition" in Washington, KIRO-TV reported. Katrina Spade is the CEO of "Recompose," the company aiming to be the first to build a facility for human composting.

"There's really only two options for when we die: cremation and burial. Neither (of those options) felt particularly meaningful to me and I think if that's the case, it's true for others as well."

Spade has spent years working to gain support for human composting, most recently with Dr. Lynne Carpenter at the Soil Science Department at Washington State University.

“They’ve already done lots of research about the safe and effective ways to recycle animals back to the land on farms.”

A process familiar to Washington’s large agricultural communities became the focus of a new study at WSU, using the bodies of six human donors. “We proved recomposition was indeed safe and effective for humans as well.”

The process is likely more environmentally friendly in a state where 70 percent of people choose cremation.

"Recomposition uses a 1/8th of the energy of cremation and saves just over a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person who chooses it, so that's pretty significant," Spade told KIRO 7.

The process would be done in special facilities, where the body would be transported after death.

Spade explained how the process works: “(The) body is covered in natural materials, like straw or wood chips, and over the course of about three to seven weeks, thanks to microbial activity, it breaks down into soil.”

During that time, families will be able to visit the facility and, in the end, receive the soil that remains, to use as they choose. “And if they don’t want that soil, we’ll partner with local conservation groups around the Puget Sound region so that that soil will be used to nourish the land here in the state,” said Spade.

As for the cost, the average burial can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000. Cremation can cost up to $6,000. Spade expects Recompose to charge around $5,500.

Leslie Christian is among the thousands of people who have expressed interest in recomposition.

"Recomposition is way more attractive to me from an environmental perspective and from an emotional perspective." She has received the mixed reactions one would expect from an idea that has to do with an alternative to traditional end-of-life choices.

She said her brother told her, “Oh, great, you can plant tomatoes in me,” and a friend said, “Oh, ick.”

“Sometimes, people just need to think about it. It doesn’t feel odd or weird for a body to return to the earth in a very, very natural way,” Christian said.

She and her partner have already changed their estate plan to choose recomposition if it becomes legal.

During recent legislative hearings, Spade has shared letters of support from religious leaders around the state. “I’ve spoken with many religious leaders around the state for whom this option is really meaningful and could be a beautiful fit for their congregation,” she said.

She said it’s important to engage with leaders in the funeral industry.

"They’ve been serving families for decades and so understanding what they know (about) both how families desires have changed over the last several decades and the best way to serve people, those are important things for us to understand,” Spade said.

For both Christian and Spade, the idea behind recomposition has also opened up the conversation about a topic that’s not always easy.

“I think we have a large Baby Boomer population that’s aging and seeing their parents die and sort of thinking, ‘Is that the best life experience that my mom or dad could have had?’” said Spade.

Christian agrees, saying, “I have realized that the conversations about death are making my life so much more happy and rewarding and I think that’s a huge piece of what the world needs.

The State Senate passed SB 5001 on Jan. 30. A companion bill is moving through the state House.

If the bill makes it to the governor’s desk, Spade hopes to start work on designing the facility by 2020.

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