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Human Composting, Liquid Cremation: States Search for Greener Funeral Options

Washington just became the first U.S. state to sanction "human composting," the latest eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation.

Katrina Spade grew up on a dead-end dirt road in New Hampshire. Her family raised cows, and they ate what they raised. She watched the animals die -- sometimes naturally, sometimes slaughtered for food. Spade’s parents worked in the health-care industry and often spoke about their patients’ end-of-life struggles and their deaths. None of it was morbid to Spade. “From an early age,” she says, “I always had a good idea of the cycle of life.” 

Later on, while she was pursuing a degree in architecture, Spade began thinking about Western death rituals. Dying is an inherent, natural part of life. Why, she wondered, did humans insist on being cremated or else embalmed with formaldehyde, sealed inside a lacquered casket and entombed in the ground? Both practices are harmful to the environment.

“They didn’t feel meaningful to me,” she says. “Back when I was thinking about cremation and burial, I didn’t want the very last thing I did on this earth to be toxic.”   

In 2014, Spade launched the Urban Death Project, a nonprofit that later morphed into Recompose, a Seattle company that studies and advocates for the legalization of “natural organic reduction,” otherwise known as human composting. The process involves human remains being mixed with natural compounds in a vessel. After a month, the composted remains become soil that can be returned to the ground to help flowers and trees grow.

Now Washington is the first state to sanction and regulate that process, under a measure signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this week.

The new law comes amid a broader shift in attitudes about burial practices, particularly around their impact on the environment. Conventional burials introduce toxic chemicals into the ground and use up land and other valuable resources -- including some 30 million board feet of casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid each year in America alone. 

That’s one reason why cremation has been growing in popularity, from being used for 28 percent of American deaths in 2002 to more than half by 2016. (By 2035, an estimated 80 percent of deaths will result in cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.) The process is less resource-intensive than burials, but it still has an environmental impact. A single cremation requires 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, along with trace amounts of other harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide and mercury. On the whole, cremations in America release some 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year -- equivalent to the CO2 from 22,000 homes. 

In short, “there are significant environmental problems” with both burial and cremation, Washington state Sen. Jamie Pedersen told The Washington Post. Pedersen introduced the human composting legislation after Spade, of Recompose, pitched the idea to him last year. The bill also legalizes alkaline hydrolysis, which turns bodies into liquid using a base such as lye. In the past 10 years, the Post reported, at least a dozen states have legalized that process.

At the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, located in the Florida Panhandle, the motto is “From Eden we come ... To Eden we shall return.” The preserve is one of about 160 “natural burial sites” that have sprung up across the country since the first was established in South Carolina in 1998. At these natural decomposition sites, caskets must be made of biodegradable materials, and bodies aren’t allowed to be embalmed.

Glendale’s motto underscores both the ecological and the religious undercurrents that are influencing the natural burial movement. “The option of recomposition, to me, is natural. It is a tangible opportunity for people, in a way, to live on after their physical life is over,” Chaplain John Waltner told The Spokesman-Review. “In the recomposition process, you can literally speak to that traditional Christian burial formula: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- confident of the resurrection to eternal life.”

Natural burials are part of several religious traditions. Muslim communities bury without embalming. In Tibet, Buddhists place corpses on mountains to decompose. 

Until the mid-1800s, American burials were mostly a family affair. After a person died, the family would wash and dress the body. It was laid in a simple wood casket that was then placed directly into the ground at the family plot. The Civil War changed that. Union soldiers killed on the battlefield were initially left to decompose in place, but that gruesome reality soon led to the practice of “field embalming,” in which corpses were preserved for the train ride home and a proper funeral. A tipping point came with the funeral for Abraham Lincoln, whose body was embalmed so that Americans around the country could view the slain president. People marveled at his lifelike appearance, and the demand for embalming quickly began to rise.

Over the next century, burial practices became more elaborate, and more environmentally harmful. Dead bodies were drained of blood and injected with formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents that slow decomposition. They were placed in ornate caskets made of polished wood and metal and lined with silk. At the cemetery, the casket was lowered into a concrete receptacle lined with plastic. 

Many of those changes were pushed by the funeral industry itself. “Funeral directors had a significant impact on funeral and burial practices for a really long time,” says David Sloane, a University of Southern California professor and the author of Is the Cemetery Dead? In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, an exposé of abuses by funeral directors, who Mitford portrayed as taking advantage of grieving families and steering them toward ever-more expensive options and add-ons. The power of the industry -- and the image of the unscrupulous funeral director -- waned in recent decades as alternative methods, including cremation, rose in popularity.

Under Washington’s human composting law, bodies will be broken down naturally. Recompose’s process involves placing a dead body in an eight-foot-by-four-foot vessel, along with straw and wood chips. As the heat in the vessel rises, microbes decompose the body over the course of 30 days, ultimately resulting in about one cubic foot of compost soil. Families will be allowed to take the soil home or donate it to conservation groups in the area.   

“There is a great comfort in the idea,” says Spade, “that when I die, my physical body will undergo a transformation and I will no longer be human. I will be a part of nature.”

Read more on this topic: "Rising Funeral Costs Put Pressure on Local Governments"

Additional reporting by Graham Vyse

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