Washington State Legislature weighs human composting measure

Photo: Normanack (https://www.flickr.com/photos/29278394@N00/2457055952/)/Wikimedia Commons


Democratic State Senator Jaime Pedersen is proposing legislation to offer Washingtonians two new options for final arrangements after death.

Option one legalizes alkaline hydrolysis, a process similar to cremation but that uses water, lye, pressure and heat rather than fire.

At least 16 other states — including Oregon and California — have legalized the cremation alternative.

The second proposal would make Washington State the first in the nation to legalize human composting, also known as recomposition.

“That involves placing a body in a vessel along with a bunch of organic material, then applying some heat and some air to it, and that accelerates the process of breaking down the body so that within about a month the body and organic material are reduced to soil,” Pedersen explained.

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From there, there are a few options.

“You can do whatever you want with it. You’d be allowed if you wanted to do it in the most traditional way to buy a plot in a cemetery and sort of bury the material with a marker, (you) obviously wouldn’t need as much space as you would if you were burying a coffin. On the other hand you could put it in your backyard and plant a tree if you wanted to – and anything in between,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen says people need alternative options to traditional burial and cremation. There was quite a bit of support for it at a Senate committee hearing yesterday, where Katrina Spade spoke. Spade owns Recompose, a Seattle Public Benefit Corporation that does recomposition.

“Recomposition is natural and sustainable. It provides significant savings in carbon emissions, which is especially important because Washington State has the highest rate of cremation in the country at 76 percent,” Spade told the committee.

“But cremation requires fossil fuels and has significant carbon dioxide emissions. Recomposition uses one-eighth the energy of cremation and saves over a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person who chooses it,” she added.

Others shared more personal reasons for their support, like one woman who spoke on behalf of a friend.

“Briar Rose Bates dedicated her entire life — short life — to cultivating plants and flowers and gardens and art. She received devastating news in 2016 that she would die of melanoma at the age of 42,” explained Katrina Morgan.

“She asked me if she could go straight back into the Earth. She asked me if she could be buried on her property on Vashon Island among the gardens that she had planted. Of course that would not be legal or feasible without spending tens of thousands of dollars to designating that property as a cemetery,” she added.

So, Morgan told the committee she reached out to Spade at Recompose, hooked Bates up with a WSU study being done, and found out it could happen. Later, it became a reality.

“It’s important to share the incredible relief to her and her family and her friends to know that she could literally become soil. That in dying, she would not be forced to pollute the planet any further,” Morgan said.

Bates passed away in 2017 and her body was composted as part of the study.

There was no real opposition to the bill at the committee hearing, though some funeral home operators expressed some concerns about logistics and rules.

Supporters say it is also more environmentally friendly and cheaper than more traditional methods.

Senator Pedersen estimates the cost of alkaline hydrolisis is between $1,500 and $2,000, similar to traditional cremation, while composting will set you back about $5,000, much less than traditional burial.

He admits there is some hesitance for people and fellow lawmakers to even discuss death and the issue of remains but says that’s true regardless of the method of burial.

“If people thought about any of it, the ick factor is significant,” Pedersen said. “I mean, what happens in a traditional burial where the blood and the other fluids are all drained out of your body and they’re replaced with a bunch of strong chemicals, embalming fluids. That’s not the most lovely idea to think about either. Nor is the idea if having yourself placed in an oven and roasted at 1,800 degrees until you turn into ashes,” Pedersen added.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote in a Senate committee Thursday morning.