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Washington State Legalizes Composting of Human Remains

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation on Tuesday that will allow for the composting of human remains.

The law permits a process of "natural organic reduction," defined as "the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil." It also allows for alkaline hydrolysis (or "liquid cremation") of bodies.

The legislation clears the way for a process developed by Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a company that is working to offer natural organic reduction services to the public. Modeled on a practice by which farmers dispose of livestock, the process uses a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw in a rotating vessel to speed up natural decomposition.

Like natural burial, human composting is intended to be a greener alternative to traditional embalming and burial in a casket, a practice which, as Sophie Yeo explained in Pacific Standard last year, is "deeply unsustainable":

Every year, in laying their dead to rest, Americans bury approximately 73,000 kilometers of hardwood boards, 58,500 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 3.1 million liters of formaldehyde. A typical four-hectare cemetery contains enough wood to construct 40 homes and sufficient volumes of embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.

By converting human remains into soil, the natural organic reduction process "minimize[s] waste, avoid[s] polluting groundwater with embalming fluid, and prevent[s] the emissions of CO2 from cremation and from the manufacturing of caskets, headstones, and grave liners," according to Recompose.

The new law will take effect in May of 2020.