Washington is looking to become the first state in the US to allow “natural organic reduction”, an alternative burial method that can turn a human body into compost in a matter of weeks.
The bill, called “Concerning human remains”, passed the Legislature on April 19 and now just needs to be signed off by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. The bill will give people the right to choose to dispose of their body after death through “natural organic reduction” and alkaline hydrolysis.
“It’s about time... we allow some technology to be applied to this universal human experience, both because we think that people should have the freedom to determine for themselves how they’d like their body to be disposed of and also because we have learned over time that there are some more environmentally friendly and safe ways of disposing of human remains,” Democratic Senator of Washington State Jamie Pedersen said in the House.
Recompose, a Seattle-based public-benefit corporation, has been working with lawmakers and scientists in the hopes of providing the service, should the bill make its way into law. Their method of natural organic reduction essentially gives the natural process of decomposition a gentle boost. Bodies are put in a temperature-controlled rotating vessel along with some woodchips, straw, and gases. After the process is completed, a cubic yard of soil per person is left, which loved ones can then take home to grow a tree or a plant from if they so wish.
Alkaline hydrolysis, which is already legal in 19 other states, would also become legal under the new bill. This method uses a number of chemical processes involving heat, water, and lye to turn the remains into a white and powdery ash-like material.
Most people in the US are currently either conventionally buried or cremated after they pass away. Both methods come with downsides in terms of the environment. Burials can simply take up a lot of space and run the risk of polluting groundwater with embalming fluid, especially in densely populated areas, while cremations can release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The amount of carbon dioxide is relatively small – approximately 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of CO2 – compared to industrial production, but many people feel its effects.
“When I'm done with this body that served me very well for the past 64 years, do I want to poison it with formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals? No. Burned? Not my first choice," Wes McMahan, a retired intensive care nurse who testified on behalf of the bill, told the Seattle Times.
"But what about all the bacteria I've worked with so long in this body – do I want to give them a chance to do what they do naturally? I believe in doing things as naturally as possible."