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Human-composting bill gets look

by Kirk Johnson The New York Times | January 27, 2019 at 4:11 a.m.

SEATTLE -- A bill before the Washington Legislature would make that state the first in the nation -- and probably the world, legal experts said -- to explicitly allow human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting, or what the bill calls recomposition.

The prospect so far has drawn no public opponents in the state capital, but it is a concept that sometimes raises eyebrows. Funeral directors say a common reaction to the idea, which has been explored and tested in recent scientific studies, is to cringe.

"There's almost a revulsion at times, when you talk about human composting," said Brian Flowers, managing funeral director at Moles Farewell Tributes, a company north of Seattle that supports the bill.

In truth, composting is an ancient and basic method of body disposal. A corpse in the ground without embalming chemicals or a coffin, or in a quickly biodegradable coffin, becomes soil over time.

But death certificates in many states include a box that must be checked for burial or cremation, with no other options. Aboveground composting, through a mortuary process that requires no burial or burning of remains, is a new category without regulation about how it should be done or what can be done with the compost. What that means is that hardly any funeral director -- even in states where laws about human remains are loosely worded -- would risk offering it without state permission.

In America, there are regional patterns to what comes of bodies after death. In the South and Midwest, where religious or cultural traditions run deep, more families opt for caskets and concrete vaults, and fewer choose cremation, experts say. In the Northeast, where family roots sometimes extend back centuries, people often favor burial in local cemeteries alongside ancestors.

In Washington state, a higher percentage of residents are cremated than in any other state. Washington has more "green cemeteries," which encourage a return to nature without manicured lawns and chemicals, than most states; only California and New York have more. And laws allowing physicians to help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths, known as "death with dignity," were pioneered in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's this interesting combination of environmental sensibility and individual choice," David Sloane, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, said of the Northwest region. Now the prospect of legalized human composting, he said, puts many of those regional impulses in a spotlight. "It's a test case for seeing how people think," he said.

Jamie Pedersen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle, is leading efforts to pass the legislation to permit a composting process after death.

Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, and Pedersen, the bill's sponsor, said he had enlisted support from Republicans, as well. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has taken no position, a spokesman said.

People are drawn to the idea of aboveground decomposition mainly for environmental reasons, Pedersen said. There's no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels that would be needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required. Some religious traditions also favor ideas of simplicity and of earth returning to earth.

Though the process sounds simple, it would not be cheap. Preliminary estimates suggest it could cost at least $5,000 -- less, perhaps, than an elaborate burial service, but more than the most basic cremation.

In a study last year at Washington State University, six bodies donated for the research were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture and the lead researcher in the study, said that after about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.

Fears that composted remains might smell bad or contain toxic elements -- from dental fillings, for example, or pharmaceutical residue -- were allayed, Carpenter-Boggs said. She said the heat generated by microorganisms broke down organic matter and pathogens, and levels of pollutants like cadmium and mercury were within federal limits.

"It certainly is feasible that families would take home a small portion that they could keep for a long time," Carpenter-Boggs said. "Or families could bring home a small amount that would be interred into their landscape, placed under a loved one's favorite tree, similar to what people do with cremains."

A Section on 01/27/2019

Print Headline: Human-composting bill gets look

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