Sean Cate
Sean Cate
June 3, 2019 ·  4 min read

Fertile Soil over Ashes: Washington Becomes First US State to Legalize Human Composting

Biologically, decomposition is a process that releases vital nutrients into the soil, thereby making it more fertile and suitable for re-use [1]. The human body is full of nutrients, and for some people, the thought of their nutrient-filled bodies being buried in a box to decompose or burned when they are gone is disturbing. They’d feel better knowing that these nutrients would be released into the soil in a safe, non-toxic process when they have passed away, rather than being cremated or buried in a traditional casket. The embalming process and cremation can have a negative impact on the environment.

Now, the State of Washington has passed a law that allows people to choose “composting” as a funeral method, an alternative to the traditional burial and cremation processes [2]. The bill will be effective as from May next year, and people may then chose to undergo “natural organic reduction: a contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” This process is already legal in Sweden, and burying humans without caskets is legal in the UK.

Inspired by the agricultural method of recycling animals

The bill was advocated for by Katrina Spade, founder, and CEO of Recompose, a start-up that specializes in human composting. Katrina has spent the past few years developing her process and bringing it to the attention of several research teams across the state.

In an interview with Pacific Standard Magazine, Spade said she’d become obsessed with the funeral industry and available funeral options during her days in graduate school [3]. She’d just started thinking about what would become of her body after she died, and she didn’t enjoy the thought of being buried in a casket or being burned.

“And then a friend of mine told me about this practice that farmers and agricultural institutions have been using for decades now to recycle animals back to the land,” she explained. “It was like a light bulb went off, and I decided to make it my mission to apply those principles to humans and create a new option for human disposition.”

Following a groundbreaking study conducted by the Soil Science Department at the Washington State University where 6 persons donated their bodies for research, the process was deemed environmentally safe and non-hazardous. The overall process is estimated to consume about one-eighth of the energy used during cremation.

“They’ve already done lots of research around a safe and effective way to recycle animals back to the land on farms,” Spade said to CNN affiliate KIRO 7 [4]. “We proved decomposition was indeed safe and effective for humans as well.”

Washington has blazed a trail for other states to follow

The bill was sponsored by Senator Jamie Pedersen, one out of the seven he’s already pushed forward this year [5].

“It’s about time we apply some technology, allow some technology to be applied to this universal human experience … because we think that people should have the freedom to determine for themselves how they’d like their body to be disposed of,” Pedersen said.

According to a post on his personal page on Washington State Legislature, he wrote: “Thinking about death and the disposition of our bodies is not pleasant, but every one of us will face this issue. Technology has transformed most aspects of our lives, but state law leaves us with the only two options – burial and cremation – people have used for thousands of years. It is time that Washington residents have other, better options.”

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Governor Inslee signed the bill that would put Washington down as the first state to allow human composting as a funeral option in the history of the United States.

The full recomposition process

This process starts with a biodegradable container known as a “vessel” being filled with a mixture of straw, alfalfa, and wood chips, upon which the body is laid. This mixture is heavy in carbon and nitrogen, two important nutrients that initiate cycles essential for decomposition.

Oxygen is also essential during this process because the decomposing microbes require it to thrive and break down the body. A fan system is set up to aerate the enclosure.

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 said to PS Mag. “It requires oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, and then the microbes really do a beautiful job of breaking everything down on a molecular level and creating this beautiful, usable soil.”

In 30 days, the body would be fully decomposed and the soil would be handed over the family. They may use it to create a garden in remembrance of their deceased loved one or anything else they desire.

The process is not merely a green alternative to cremation, which is the method chosen by 70% of the people in Washington State, but it’s also gearing up to be more cost effective and affordable.

Burials can cost anything from $8,000 to $25,000. The average cremation procedure would require an additional $6,000. Spade said she plans to charge about $5,500 for the recomposition procedure, and the family of the deceased can also get to spend time with their loved one throughout the process.

Recompose is going to have rooms in our facility where families can spend a little extra time with the body itself,” she said. “The idea is really for families to do what feels right for them. We’re just getting to return to the earth what is technically just dirt, but of course emotionally, very special. But we want to make sure no one feels that they have to take it all, if that’s not something that works for them.”