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World & Nation

Washington state braces for eco-friendly ‘human composting’

Human Composting
Human composting activist Nina Schoen, a Seattle media tech executive, wants her body to “turn into something that can regenerate life.”
(Karen Ducey / For The Times)

As Washington prepares to become the first state to legalize “human composting,” not everyone is dying to turn their loved ones’ bodies into garden-variety soil.

Even the lawmaker who sponsored the bill awaiting action by the governor receives emails from people around the country expressing disgust.

“I think the vision they have is that you throw Grandpa out in the backyard with food scraps,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat.

In fact, Pedersen said, the idea is that “bodies are being reduced to soil in a way that is essentially an acceleration of a very natural process.” The practice reduces the environmental impact, he said, and saves land from being taken up by cemetery plots and headstones.

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Some Washington residents are already lining up to be composted — when their day comes. And Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat focusing his presidential campaign on climate change, may sign the bill in order to cut carbon emissions from burials and cremations; he has until May 21 to decide.

Going easy on the environment is one reason Nina Schoen, 48, of Seattle plans to direct in her will that her body be composted.

“I don’t want to leave a toxic footprint when I go,” said Schoen, a media tech executive who urged state legislators to vote for the bill.

The measure, which passed with bipartisan support, also permits a process called alkaline hydrolysis, already legal in some states, in which bodies are broken down in water and lye.

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It’s no accident that eco-friendly options are taking root in Washington, a state with a strong environmental ethic, a flair for innovation and below-average participation in organized religion. Washington also has the country’s highest rate of cremation — 78%.

But a main hurdle facing human composting is branding. If cremation were known as “human burning,” for example, it might not have grown nationally from just 3% of dispositions in 1960 to about 50% today.

“Anytime you propose something new to be done with human remains, it’s a little tough to get everybody on board,” said Mary Roach, an Oakland author who examined human composting in her book “Stiff,” about the strange fates of cadavers.

Roach expects the approach will gain acceptance as “a kind of cousin of green burial, or shroud burial, where the body is just buried in a simpler, more environmentally friendly process.”

In Seattle, a company called Recompose, where Schoen volunteers as an advisor, is preparing to offer human composting in a process marketed delicately as “natural organic reduction,” letting microbes do the work of breaking down remains.

Recompose Chief Executive Katrina Spade began questioning conventional means of disposition 11 years ago when, she says, turning 30 made her realize she was mortal. As a graduate student in architecture, Spade researched environmentally sustainable alternatives to the $20-billion U.S. funeral industry, which she considered toxic and dehumanizing.

She formed a nonprofit, the Urban Death Project, and worked with experts to calculate potential carbon emissions savings from composting bodies. Troy Hottle, a life-cycle assessment analyst, created a detailed model showing that composting would save more than a ton of carbon emissions per person.

“With cremation, there’s a lot of fuel that goes into burning a body,” said Hottle, who continues modeling environmental effects as an unpaid advisor to Recompose. “With traditional burial, the model accounted for caskets, embalming, a headstone and a concrete grave liner, as well as the maintenance of the gravesite.”

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Human Composting
Katrina Spade, founder and chief executive of Recompose, aims to open an outlet that will compost about 150 bodies in its first year.
(Karen Ducey / For The Times)

Spade has applied for patents and tested the concept in a recent pilot project, in which a Washington State University soil scientist composted six donated cadavers. Spade lobbied for the legislation after Pedersen, the state senator, agreed to add it to a bill he planned to sponsor for legalizing alkaline hydrolysis.

Spade is in lease negotiations to develop a Seattle outlet where bodies will morph within weeks into soil suitable for pushing up daisies.

“Creating a space that feels comforting and serene will be the first goal,” Spade said. “The idea of returning to nature so directly and being folded back into the cycle of life and death is actually pretty beautiful.”

In a 45-page prospectus seeking $6.75 million in investments, Recompose describes its proprietary process: Bodies are to be placed with wood chips, alfalfa and straw in hexagonal steel vessels, where they will be decomposed by microbes.

The end product would be “a dry, fluffy soil, much like a bag of topsoil one would buy at a local nursery,” Spade said, and customers would have the option of donating compost to conservation groups for tree planting.

Recompose plans to charge $5,500 — more than the average cremation but less than burial in a casket.

Spade said the facility would eventually have the capacity to compost 750 bodies a year, with about 150 projected for its first year. She aims to expand the business through licensing in California and other states if the practice is legalized beyond Washington, where Recompose is alone so far in the human composting space.

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Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Assn., a Seattle nonprofit with a member-owned funeral home, said she’s received numerous inquiries since the bill passed last month. She explained that assuming Inslee signs the measure, it won’t go into effect for a year.

“I did have one lady already calling — it was her sister who had passed away — wondering whether we could keep her in cold storage until recomposition was available,” Menkin said.

Lisa Devereau, president of the Washington State Funeral Directors Assn., was skeptical until the bill was rewritten to specify where survivors may spread the couple of wheelbarrows of compost yielded by each body.

Families will be able to take the clean, nutrient-rich soil home, where it’ll be safe for food gardens, a prospect that Devereau says she still finds unsettling.

Devereau doubts that families will bury human compost in cemeteries. “I can’t imagine spending the money to buy a plot and dig a hole to bury a bag of dirt,” she said.

Some other funeral directors continue to oppose the practice.

“It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of,” said Dennis Murphy, a funeral director at Hennessey Funeral Home & Crematory in Spokane. Murphy criticizes the price and doubts bones would deteriorate.

The Washington State Catholic Conference opposed the human composting bill. It wrote to a legislative committee chairman that the technique might not safely process pathogens.

The organization also objects on more philosophical terms.

“The Catholic Church believes that disposing human remains in such a manner fails to show enough respect for the body of the deceased,” Joseph Sprague, the organization’s executive director, wrote in the letter.

State officials are guarded as they prepare to develop regulations for human composting.

“This is a completely new practice in our state, and we’ll consider possible public health risks as we proceed,” said Julie Graham, a state Department of Health public information officer.

In a different twist on green burial, actor Luke Perry was recently buried in a “mushroom suit,” as he wished, according to his daughter. Coeio, the company that sells the $1,500 biodegradable garments, says mushrooms aid decomposition, neutralize toxins and deliver nutrients to plant roots.

In Sweden, biologist and gardener Susanne Wiigh-Masak wants to use liquid nitrogen to deep-freeze bodies until they become brittle, then vibrate them into a powder that could be used for compost. Wiigh-Masak has been unable to get the process off the ground amid opposition from the funeral industry.

Off Florida, a cemetery under the sea »

Rachel Caldwell, who is licensed as an embalmer and funeral director in Kansas, is trying to get Wiigh-Masak’s process approved in that state under the existing definition of cremation. Caldwell plans to charge the same as the going rate for cremation, about $2,000.

“We get emails from people in the U.S. saying, ‘If it’s not available here when I die, but it is in Sweden, ship me to Sweden,’” Caldwell said. “People want this.”


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