You’ve probably heard of composting food and paper scraps, but what about humans? The services developed by Recompose in Washington State have revolutionized the funeral industry by taking a very different approach to disposition. They are the flagship funeral home for a process most commonly known as human composting, which also goes by the formal name natural organic reduction (NOR). It’s left some people wondering, is this the future of funerals?
While natural organic reduction is a fairly simple concept, getting approval for human composting has been much more complex. As the first to approve human composting, Washington State has served as a testing ground. Washington’s decision to approve NOR has proven to be highly influential in shaping disposition policies in other states.
Here we take a closer look at how Washington passed landmark legislation to legalize human compositing and the impact it’s had around the country.
The Human Composting Process Developed by Recompose
To understand why legalization in Washington State was such a huge feat, you first need to know a little about human composting and how it’s different from other forms of disposition. Human composting, also known as natural organic reduction, uses millions of microbes to break down the body instead of using incineration, water or burial.
Natural microbial decomposition has an organic part of life. If a body is put directly in the ground, microbes will eventually consume all of the bodily tissue. What Recompose does is simply speed up this natural process. Katrina Spade, the company’s founder, has compared their process to the natural decomposition of leaves in the forest.
The process is nothing like other disposition options, but that’s the point. It was developed to provide an extremely eco-friendly disposition option that improves the health of the environment rather than generating pollution and using up land that can’t be utilized for anything other than burial. The idea may seem too alternative, but it’s gotten people’s attention and funeral homes have taken notice.
To create the human compost, a large vessel is filled with microbes as well as straw, wood chips and alfalfa. The body is covered in a biodegradable shroud then placed in the microbe mixture. The vessel is sealed shut and the temperature inside is increased to 150 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of 30-50 days. At the end of the process, the decomposed body and organic materials are well on the way to becoming about a cubic yard of soil.
Once the initial composting portion of the process is complete, pacemakers and other medical devices are removed from the soil. The bones will also be removed and pulverized to either be given to the next of kin as cremains or reintroduced back to the soil. After that there’s a curing process that takes an additional 3-5 weeks.
The family can choose to take the soil home to scatter it on their property or use it for a potted plant. Some families choose to donate the soil to conservation groups that use the soil for various projects. Since one cubic yard of soil is created, the family could choose to keep a little of the soil and donate the rest.
Why Washington State Passed Laws Allowing Human Composting
Being the first to do something takes a certain level of courage, no matter what it is that you’re doing. You can’t be afraid to try something new if there’s promise to improve the way things are done.
When Sen. Jamie Pedersen introduced Senate Bill 5001 in 2019, he noted that the funeral industry had not advanced technologically as other industries had in recent decades. SB 5001 was the companion legislation for House Bill 1162 that was designed to bring end of life services into the modern era.
The bill added new sections to chapter 68.04 RCW to provide legal guidance on alkaline hydrolysis (water cremation) and natural organic reduction – both of which were approved for use beginning on May 1, 2020. The regulations include definitions along with information on the facilities used for the services.
Washington law now states that “natural organic reduction means the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”
The two driving forces behind the approval of natural organic reduction in Washington were efficiency and pollution reduction. Forward thinking legislators in Washington recognized that traditional burials and cremation can be extremely harmful for the environment. As such, they understood better alternatives are needed.
Another factor was the land that’s needed for traditional burials. At the pace the U.S. population is growing, aging and passing away, burials are not sustainable. On top of land conservation concerns, the practice uses too many natural resources and adds pollutants like embalming fluid into the environment. Even traditional flame-based cremation can be harmful.
Recompose and its supporters note that natural organic recomposition has a much lower impact than traditional burial. One of those supporters is Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Anyone who followed Inslee’s bid for president knows that climate change has been a big part of his platform. It was no surprise that the governor was on board with expanding funeral services to include natural organic reduction since it’s been proven effective and safe.
The fact that now six more states have approved human composting is proof that society as a whole is embracing the use of alternative end of life services in an effort to reduce environmental impact. The list of states that allow natural organic reduction includes California, Colorado, Nevada, New York, Oregon and Vermont. So, if you’ve always wanted to be a tree, natural organic reduction can make it possible.
For now, flame cremation is still the most common end of life service in the U.S. But if the trends that we’re seeing after Washington legalized human composting is an indicator, alternative methods may become more widely used in the coming years.
If you’d like to know more about the human composting process and how to arrange the service in Texas, you can give the Cremation.Green team a call, text or email any hour of the day.