The term “recomposition” might bring to mind images of bony skeleton hands bursting up from gravesites and the undead being reanimated, but in reality it’s an alternative method to burying or cremating human remains. And now, it’s officially legal in Washington State.
Governor Jay Inslee signed S.B. 5001 into law on Tuesday that legalizes human composting, the process of turning a dead body into soil. The process was pioneered by Katrina Spade, who founded a company called Recompose after she studied the process at Washington State University, using the bodies of six people who had donated their remains to the research.
Spade explained the process as covering the body with straw, wood chips and other natural materials, and the body breaks down naturally thanks to microbial activity over the course of three to seven weeks. When you compare the cost of a traditional burial or even cremation to human composting, it’s hard to argue with the price. CNN reports the average cost of a burial is anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000, and cremation can cost over $6,000. Spade says she hopes to charge around $5,500 for recomposition.
Supporters of recomposition tout the environmental benefits when compared to traditional burial, which involves draining the body of fluids and filling it with formaldehyde, which can pollute groundwater, and even cremation, which relies largely on natural gas.
The majority of the organized opposition has come from the Catholic Church, which argues that recomposition does not line up with church doctrine on how to treat the bodies of the deceased. There is also the question of what happens to the cemetery as the community gathering place to remember loved ones who have passed on if recomposition becomes widely-used.
Would you be willing to consider recomposition as an alternative to more traditional methods if it were ever approved in California? How close is California to approving a method like this? Are there other alternatives to traditional burial and cremation that are permitted in certain states?
We reached out to Recompose founder Katrina Spade to request an interview, but she declined our offer and sent us the following statement:
“Washington is leading the way by being the first state to offer the death care choice of natural organic reduction to gently convert human remains into soil. At Recompose, we could not be more proud of our broad community for supporting the creation of this new service and for our state’s political leaders who really rolled up their sleeves to create a new regulatory framework that ensures we will all have a safe, scientifically-rigorous and environmentally sustainable new death care choice. As we turn our attention at Recompose to raising investment capital and sharing information with prospective customers, we are thankful for the outpouring of public interest and support for recomposition. We look forward to sharing updates as they occur.”
David Sloane, professor of public policy at USC and an expert in the history of cemeteries and burial places and cultural attitudes towards death and memorialization; his latest book is “Is The Cemetery Dead?” (University of Chicago Press, April 2018)
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University; she is also the research advisor for Recompose, the organization responsible for inventing the natural organic reduction process.