Washington is expected to become the first state to legalize an eco-friendly burial alternative. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Washington state legislature has passed a bill that will allow an environmentally-friendly burial option that turns human remains into soil within a matter of weeks. The bill is currently being reviewed by Governor Jay Inslee.
The burial alternative, known as natural organic reduction or “human composting,” creates an average of one cubic yard of soil per burial. Relatives or loved ones could keep the soil in urns, plant a tree with the soil on private property, or scatter the soil on public lands.
Senator Jamie Pedersen, the bill’s sponsor, says the laws applying to scattering cremated remains would be the same for the soil created through natural organic reduction. Pedersen says the natural organic reduction process takes up less space than a traditional burial and it reduces the carbon emissions emitted by cremation.
“It is sort of astonishing that you have this completely universal human experience — we’re all going to die — and here’s an area where technology has done nothing for us,” said Pedersen.
In the last decade, the U.S. has been developing more eco-friendly technology in an attempt to curb climate change. The average home consumes 40% less natural gas than it did 40 years ago and homeowners are choosing more renewable flooring choices; bamboo plants used for flooring can grow to maturity in just three years.
Even residential pest control services, which make up 68% of the industry, have been turning away from chemical sprays. But eco-friendly technology in other sectors, such as the funeral industry, has been lagging behind.
“We have the two means of disposing of human bodies that we’ve had for thousands of years, burying and burning,” Pedersen said. “It just seems like an area that is [ready] for having technology help give us some better options than we have used.”
The idea for the bill came from Katrina Spade, founder of the company Recompose.
“Recompose offers an alternative choice to cremation and conventional burial methods,” Spade says on her website. “Our service — recomposition — gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die.”
Spade ran a pilot project on recomposition for her master’s thesis at Washington State University. Using the donated bodies of six deceased people, Spade created an environment for thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes and beneficial bacteria that were able to quickly break down organic material and bones.
“By controlling the ratio of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture, our system creates the perfect environment for these creatures to thrive,” says Spade. “We also mix the material at several points during the process to ensure thorough decomposition.”
During the pilot project, the process took between four to seven weeks. Today, Spade and her team screen for non-organics during at the end of 30 days to make sure the decomposition process is finished and the material can be given back to families.
Although a price for the services has yet to be listed, Spade says aim to charge approximately $5,500 per burial. A traditional burial with a funeral viewing costs approximately $7,360.
Rob Goff, the executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says it’s exciting to be able to give people more burial choices. Washington’s cremation rate is currently the highest in the country. In 2017, more than 78% of those who died in the state were cremated.
But cremation isn’t necessarily more eco-friendly than a traditional burial. According to Spade, converting human remains to soil helps to minimize waste and prevents embalming fluid from polluting groundwater. Recomposition also prevents the emissions of CO2 from cremation and the manufacturing of headstones, caskets, and grave liners.
“Our goal is to provide something that is as aligned with the natural cycle as possible, but still realistic in being able to serve a good number of families and not take up as much land as burial will,” said Spade.
The bill is expected to take effect on May 1, 2020.
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