Washington Becomes First State to Allow the Turning of Human Bodies into Soil and Compost

Jason Duaine Hahn
Washington Becomes First State to Allow the Turning of Human Bodies into Soil and Compost

Residents in Washington will soon be legally allowed to turn the bodies of their loved ones into soil for their gardens.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill on Tuesday that will pave the way for licensed facilities to offer “natural organic reduction,” a process that can turn human remains into “two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil,” according to the Associated Press.

The process uses wood chips and straw and can turn a human body into clean soil in a matter of weeks. As the Seattle Times notes, it is similar to a method farmers use called “livestock composting,” which can turn a fully intact 1,500-pound steer into usable compost.

The bill also allows for alkaline hydrolysis, or “liquid cremation,” which decays a human body using heat, pressure, water and chemicals, and is already in use in 19 states.

Once the legislation goes into effect in May 2020, families will be able to choose to have their loved ones turned into soil in lieu of the more traditional methods of burial or cremation.

Choosing this new option will be environmentally beneficial as well, as cremation releases carbon dioxide into the air, and traditional burial takes up land and can pollute groundwater. Turning remains into compost, though, can bring nourishment to the Earth instead of contaminants.

“It is sort of astonishing that you have this completely universal human experience — we’re all going to die — and here’s an area where technology has done nothing for us. We have the two means of disposing of human bodies that we’ve had for thousands of years, burying and burning,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who sponsored the measure, told USA Today. “It just seems like an area that is ripe for having technology help give us some better options than we have used.”

Young plant growing in soil | Getty

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“It gives meaning and use to what happens to our bodies after death,” added Nora Menkin, an executive director at the People’s Memorial Association, to the AP.

The idea was born out of the efforts of Katrina Spade, who researched the funeral industry while studying architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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After looking into the livestock composting used by farmers, she came up with the idea of using wood chips, straw and nitrogen and carbon to speed up the natural decay of a human body. The remains were also placed and rotated in a temperature- and moisture-controlled container.

Spade ran a successful pilot program in Seattle using six donor bodies last year. She then started the company Recompose and raised nearly $7 million to open a body composting facility in Seattle, with plans to expand.

“Our goal is to provide something that is as aligned with the natural cycle as possible,” Spade told USA Today, “but still realistic in being able to serve a good number of families and not take up as much land as burial will.”