On May 21, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill legalizing “human composting.” Which is to say, the state of Washington now permits a form of controlled organic decomposition. Dead human bodies can now be buried, cremated—or “recomposed.”
As a graduate architecture student, Katrina Spade (her real name, so perhaps she was predestined for this line of work) spent some time researching the funeral industry. This led to a sense of deep disappointment with both the environmental and psychological implications of what we, as a society, do with our dead. Spade eventually collaborated with scientists at Washington State University’s Soil Science Department, who conducted a research trial to rapidly convert “human remains to soil-like material.” According to the results, “recomposition” is possible—and safe. The process reduced pathogens, soluble metals, and pharmaceuticals to EPA-approved levels.
Spade formed the company Recompose to offer the process as an alternative to burial and cremation. Now that Governor Inslee signed the bill, Recompose is also on the verge of offering legal eco-burial. The company said it plans to open a location start processing bodies in spring 2021.
Anthropology of death
But eco-burial is not exactly a new concept. In many cultures across the world, various forms of natural burial methods have existed for centuries. Just ask Tiffany Terneny, PhD, who teaches a course titled Anthropology of Death. An archeologist and biological anthropologist whose research interests include mortuary and death practices, Terneny offered a long list of alternatives.
In Tibet, there is sky burial, in which people build tall scaffolding and leave the body up high where a flock of vultures will decimate it in a few hours. In Sweden, there is promession, in which a body is freeze-dried. In recent years, turning loved ones into diamonds or fireworks has become popular.
Climate change and overpopulation affect everyone—including the dead
And all over the world there are ossuaries for human skeletal remains. Some are things of splendor, where bones and skulls become building materials for complex domes and chandeliers. Some, like the catacombs of Paris, were built as a response to overflowing cemeteries.
Overflowing cemeteries is “one of the creepy things about climate change,” Terneny said. “I’m from Texas and I’ve seen cemeteries flood and bodies popping out of the water.” She believes this is something coastal communities will have to address.
But even if we ignore how global warming will negatively impact cemeteries, there is another problem with burial—we’re running out of room. Terneny puts it bluntly, “The dead far outnumber the living, obviously.”
How do we dispose of human remains safely and responsibly?
Washington state may be leading the way, but everyone should be discussing how we dispose of human remains—now and in the future. The Recompose website takes an eco-conscious approach: “By converting human remains into soil, we minimize waste, avoid polluting groundwater with embalming fluid, and prevent the emissions of CO2 from cremation and from the manufacturing of caskets, headstones, and grave liners.”
Amanda Weaver, PhD, a senior instructor in geography and environmental science and adviser for the certificate in sustainable urban agriculture, studies regulations on land use related to organic growing, urban agriculture, and animal husbandry. Legally, we might not be ready for human compositing: “Along with large animal slaughter or burial, many city codes do not even allow for composting toilets or high-heat composting in or near residential areas due to potential health hazards,” Weaver said. She believes it’s important to ask, “How is this industry regulated for potential soil contamination?”
That’s a question Colorado has yet to face. In this state, people still have only the standard two options, burial or cremation, but Recompose is actively working to bring recomposition to Colorado.
Cultural taboos may limit human composting
The larger question about what to do with remains, however, may be related to our cultural beliefs. “You can’t go to dinner and ask someone about death,” Terneny said. “People don’t like to think about mortality.”
If people don’t like to think about death in general, they certainly don’t want a daily reminder of it. Charles Musiba, PhD, a biological anthropologist who overheard Terneny talking about eco-burial, chimed in: “I’m an organ donor and it’s OK for my body to be used as a cadaver, but not for composting.” He was particularly troubled by the idea of growing heirloom tomatoes using soil from people you knew.
“That’s so gross,” he said.
But others might take comfort in the idea: “For some people, recomposition offers a means to be productive one last time. They derive peace of mind from knowing their body can, after recomposition, one day nourish a forest or garden,” Recompose stated via email.
Terneny, who planted a lemon tree to mark the spot where she buried her dead dog, isn’t squeamish. “We’re just sacs of blood and water and electricity,” she said. “We’re squishy.”