Amid land crunch, Washington state legalises use of human remains to nurture soil

Backers say human composting is an eco-friendly alternative to burial or cremation, and has obvious benefits in urban areas with dwindling land availability.
Backers say human composting is an eco-friendly alternative to burial or cremation, and has obvious benefits in urban areas with dwindling land availability.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - It saves space, cuts emissions and feeds plants - now human composting may go mainstream after Washington became the first US state to legalise the transformation of human remains to nurturing soil.

The bill passed by wide margins and was signed into law on Tuesday (March 21) by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, a presidential candidate running on a climate ticket.

Its backers say "natural organic reduction" is an eco-friendly alternative to burial or cremation, and has obvious benefits in urban areas with dwindling land availability.

"Burial is problematic first and foremost because it's land use. Cremation is problematic because of greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. So what's our next option?" said Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a Seattle-based company planning to offer commercial services around organic reduction.

The Washington city has already passed a moratorium on building cemeteries because officials say they are "not a good use of land", Ms Spade told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The process follows a longstanding tradition of farmers composting horses and livestock after they die, said Ms Spade, who along with colleagues has been testing a method that would see a corpse put into an enclosed pod and covered in grasses.

Microbes already in the body heat the pod to about 65 degrees Celsius, she said, and in about a month, yield 0.65 cubic m of soil, which could be given to family or donated.

 
 
 

The drive to deal with dead bodies in new ways comes amid dwindling space in urban cemeteries.

On Wednesday (May 22), a British council said it plans to reclaim unused grave plots - where burial rights had been purchased but never used - and is also considering "grave reclamation", which involves reopening graves to intern new bodies.

Green burials have risen in popularity, with growing demand for caskets that biodegrade and ceremonies that leave no trace.

Post-death traditions are quickly changing across the United States, and environmentally friendly options are "growing in popularity among consumers," the National Funeral Directors Association said in an email.

According to a 2018 survey by the association, almost half of respondents expressed interest in exploring green options.

One is known as a "natural" burial, in which a body is simply put into the ground in designated areas, casket-free.

But there are few designated zones in urban areas, said Ms Spade, who sees organic reduction as the "urban conceptual equivalent for natural burial".

Experts said the Washington state law was significant but only one in a long line of ingenious ways humans handle death.

"Humans are very good at inventing and developing new dead body disposal technologies," said John Troyer, director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

Other examples include alkaline hydrolysis - a chemical process that breaks down the body - or the growing popularity of various biodegradable shrouds.

Mr Troyer said organic reduction methods "effectively and respectfully manage the final disposition of human remains".