A few months ago, Washington became the first state to legalize human composting (also known as recomposition) as an after-death alternative to cremation or burial. The new law will go into effect on May 1, 2020.

The bill’s sponsor, Democrat Jamie Pedersen of Seattle, told USA Today that recomposition could reduce carbon emissions emitted by cremation, as it is a natural organic reduction process. It also takes up less space than opting for burial.

The method of compositing the human body after death turns human remains into nutrient-rich topsoil in four to seven weeks, creating an average of one cubic yard of soil per body.

How does recomposition work?

Katrina Spade is CEO of alternative burial company Recompose and the driving force behind the human compositing movement. As she explained to local news station KIRO 7, recomposition involves moving the body to a specially designed facility and placing it inside a vessel filled with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw.

After several weeks of microbial activity, the body breaks down into soil that can be kept in urns by relatives, be planted as a tree on private property, or be spread out to nourish public lands. 

The recomposition process saves more than one metric ton of carbon dioxide for every individual who chooses this option, and uses an eighth of the energy required for cremation.

According to Smithsonian.com, the recomposition process saves more than one metric ton of carbon dioxide for every individual who chooses this option, and uses an eighth of the energy required for cremation.

This novel concept might be offputting or jarring to some. That’s understandable. But as Troy Hottle, a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency who advises the Recompose team, told the Seattle Times, “Recompose gets as close to the natural process of decomposition [as] you’d assume a body would undergo before we had an industrialized society.”

An eco-friendly way to die

According to Recompose, if every Washington resident chose recomposition as their after-death preference, within 10 years, it would save the same amount of energy required to power 54,000 homes for a year.

“In an urban environment, which is where the global population is growing and land use is at a premium, it’s the most efficient and environmentally sound method of burial,” Hottle noted in the aforementioned Seattle Times interview.

The environmentally friendly aspect of recomposition is certainly seductive, but when you think too long about the process, perhaps questions like “well… what happens to the bones…?” begin to haunt you.

To this, the Recompose team assures that everything — including bones and teeth — is transformed into soil. “That’s because our system creates the perfect environment for thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes and beneficial bacteria to break everything down quite quickly,” the site states.

“At the end of the 30 days, we screen for non-organics and make sure the resultant soil is finished. The material we give back to families is much like the topsoil you’d buy at your local nursery.”

Opinions are varied

The New York Times reported that the Catholic Church opposed the bill, stating that composting ran contrary to church doctrine. “Disposing human remains in such a manner fails to show enough respect for the body of the deceased,” Joseph Sprague, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, wrote in a letter to a legislative committee.

“It only makes sense that how I die is also aligned with how I live.”
–Nina Schoen, Seattle

Despite religious pushback, there are quite a few supporters of human composting.

Nina Schoen, a 48-year-old Seattle resident told BBC News that she seeks a greener way to die. “What’s most important to me is that after I’m gone, my body is able to give back to this earth that has supported me, and through that create new life,” said Schoen. “Environmental concerns are very important to me and play an active role in my day to day choices … It only makes sense that how I die is also aligned with how I live.”

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