In May 2019, legislators in Washington State passed a bill that would allow for a greener funerary alternative — corpse composting. The bill went into effect a year later, in May 2020; and as of November 1, the first legal corpse composting company, Recompose, is officially accepting cadaver customers.
The New York Times explained the details of the law at the time of its passing:
Washington’s new law, which takes effect in May 2020, will allow bodies to be placed in a receptacle, along with organic material like wood chips and straw, to help speed up the natural transition of human remains into soil. Farmers use a similar process to compost the bodies of livestock.
Recompose founder Katrina Spade — who helped to spearhead the legal change — recently spoke with MIT Technology Review about the philosophy behind her business, which began with a trial of six bodies performed in conjunction with Washington State University:
In 2017, Spade started Recompose, a Seattle-based human composting company, to carry out the service for any client willing and able to spend $5,500, which is still much cheaper than most funerals.
For Spade, the business is about fighting climate change. In America, cemeteries take up an estimated 1 million acres of land; caskets destroy 4 million acres of forest every year; and burials use 30 million boards of wood and over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. According to Troy Hottle, a sustainability analyst and advisor to Recompose, the carbon dioxide saved by composting one human comes to between 0.84 and 1.4 metric tons. One metric ton is equivalent to burning 1,102 pounds (500 kilograms) of coal or driving about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) in a passenger car.
She explains a bit more about the composting process as well:
Each body goes into an individual vessel, which is like a cone container, and it’s laid onto wood chips, alfalfa, and straw—this nice mixture of natural materials—and covered with more of the same. The body is kind of cocooned, and it stays in that vessel for 30 days. As it’s there, microbes are breaking down the body and breaking down the wood chips, alfalfa, and straw to create this beautiful soil. We will have 10 of those units to begin. We’ll be able to welcome 10 bodies per month.
The Recompose company website is packed with information, too. It certainly makes sense that they’d want to provide people with so many details when it comes to such a new and difficult-to-talk-about concept. But that transparency is also much better than what you’d get anywhere else in the funeral industry, which certainly isn’t going to go into detail about the 800,00 gallons of embalming fluid used each year, and the cancerous carcinogens contained within that toxic serum. (Cadaver composting is not only better for the planet, it’s also better for wallet, costing about $2000 less than the average funeral.)
While it’s understandable that people want to avoid talking about death, Spade’s interview with the Tech Review is pretty fascinating, both in terms of environmental science, and human culture. There have been other green funeral alternatives, such as the $3000 Infinity Burial Suit from Coeio, which uses flesh-eating mushrooms, but they don’t handle the actual logistics of where the body goes, which Recompose does.
The startup turning human bodies into compost [Britta Lokting / MIT Technology Review]
Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust. Or, in Washington State, You Could Now Be Compost. [Adeel Hassan / New York Times]
Image: Public Domain via NeedPix
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