Human Composting Gains Ground

By: - March 8, 2021 12:00 am

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of compost material left from the decomposition of a cow. The Seattle, Washington, company began composting its first human bodies in December after state lawmakers legalized the practice. Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

Just a few months ago, facilities in Washington state began accepting bodies under the state’s new human composting option. Now, at least two more states are considering laws to allow the practice.

The proposals come as more Americans seek “green burial” options, which can include wilderness burials, traditional interments in eco-friendly containers and human composting.

This year, some lawmakers in Oregon and Colorado want to follow Washington’s lead and allow for “natural organic reduction,” a process that converts human remains to soil. Decedents are placed into a temperature-controlled vessel with wood chips, straw and other materials, a system that increases nitrogen and carbon levels and decomposes bodies in about a month. The Colorado bill was first proposed last year, but delayed due to the pandemic.

Sponsors say they’ve heard from constituents who are interested in the option, and at least one mortuary in Colorado has said it would like to offer human composting.

Oregon’s bill also allows for alkaline hydrolysis, or “aqua cremation.” The first hearing on the measure was held March 1, with more than 80 people testifying.

In Washington state, three facilities are currently licensed to conduct human composting, and two of them received their first bodies in December, KOIN reported

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Democrat who sponsored Washington’s human composting law in 2019, told Stateline that year that he was open to other changes in end-of-life laws as more residents seek green burials.

“If there are obstacles to responsible practices for the disposal of human remains,” he said, “it makes sense for us to clear those away and leave space for the practice to develop.”

Washington’s law was opposed by the Washington State Catholic Conference, wrote lawmakers at the time to oppose the measure. The group said composting disrespects bodies, which should be buried in sacred places.

Green burial advocates argue that traditional practices put large amounts of embalming fluid, steel and concrete into the ground. Even cremations, which have become the most popular burial option, release carbon emissions, they note.

While most states don’t explicitly ban green burial methods, many have laws that make the practices difficult. Rules regulating paved roads, fencing, endowments and transportation are common obstacles. Some local officials have also passed ordinances hostile to green burial.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.