Some excellent news for people who want to be composted came down from Olympia Friday when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5001, which could change the future of after-death care in Washington state.
"I am over the moon!" Katrina Spade says about the bill's passage. "It feels amazing to have this bill pass, and with so much support behind it."
Spade, an architect by training, is the founder of Recompose, an organization working to revolutionize what we do with bodies after death. The phrase "human composting" describes it best, although, for obvious reasons, Spade prefers the term "recomposition" or “natural organic reduction." Until now, it hasn't been legal to compost people in any state in the U.S., but if, as expected, Gov. Inslee signs the bill, that will soon change: Instead of being buried or cremated, the two most popular forms of body disposal in the U.S., in the future, bodies could go to facilities like the one Spade is designing. They will be laid into a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw—all materials that help speed the decomposition process—and broken down into soil. It happens shockingly quick: In around a month, the body will be transformed into rich, living soil by thermophilic bacteria that thrive at certain temperatures (and, yes, this includes the bones and the teeth).
Spade first came up with the idea of recomposition in grad school, when she realized that cities were running out of burial space. She's spent the last seven years not just building her organization, designing the facility, and working to reform the law, she's also been working with universities in Washington and North Carolina to figure out the perfect blend of materials for breaking down human bodies. During this process, Spade and the researchers found that the resulting soil meets state and federal safety standards. In other words, it's fine to use in your garden.
"The soil is safe for growing anything but we suggest it be used for tree and ornamentals," Spade says. (Note to my loved ones: I'd really prefer to be tomatoes, eaten with plenty of pepper and salt.)
If/when the bill is signed into law, it will take effect May 1, and it will also legalize alkaline hydrolysis, a sort of cremation by water instead of fire, as former Stranger staffer Sean Nelson called it last year. Both alkaline hydrolysis and recomposition are far less terrible for the environment than our current means of body disposal. Each cremation, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, takes 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burial is even worse for the planet: Each year in the U.S., we bury 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 750,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and 90,000 tons of steel. That's as much steel as it took to build the Golden Gate bridge, but instead of using it for, say, bridges that living people can drive over, we bury it with our dead. It's an unsustainable model. Plus, the simple reality is that many cities are running out of space. We barely have room for the living residents in Seattle, much less dead ones.
While the idea of being allowed to decay is likely icky to some people, for others, "Returning to nature is a comforting idea," Spade says. And it won't take much longer for this service to open to the public, at least in Seattle. Recompose is looking for space now, and hopes to be up and running in two years or less.