Washington may become first state to legalize human composting

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1 of 2 An artist’s rendition of the first Recompose site, where people can opt to have their remains composted. (MOLT Studios)
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2 of 2 Katrina Spade is founder and CEO of Recompose, an initiative to find an alternative to burial or cremation. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Washington is just a governor’s signature away from becoming the first state in the U.S. to legalize the “natural organic reduction” of human remains, colloquially known as “composting.”

On Friday, the state Senate and House of Representatives finalized their approval of bill 5001 (titled “concerning human remains”), which enshrines “organic reduction” and alkaline hydrolysis, a dissolving process sometimes called “liquid cremation,” as acceptable alternatives to traditional burial and cremation.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said the governor hasn’t had a chance to review the final legislation. (Once it crosses his desk, he’ll have five days to act.) If Inslee signs the bill, the law would take effect May 1, 2020.

“I am very much in favor of the composting of human bodies!” said Wes McMahan, a retired cardiovascular intensive-care nurse who lives in Randle, Lewis County, and testified in support of the bill this week.

“When I’m done with this body that served me very well for the past 64 years, do I want to poison it with formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals? No,” McMahan said. “Burned? Not my first choice. But what about all the bacteria I’ve worked with so long in this body — do I want to give them a chance to do what they do naturally? I believe in doing things as naturally as possible.”

Passage of the bill fulfills a longtime hope for Seattle-based Katrina Spade, and is another step in a years-long effort to realize her vision for an urban, soil-based, ecologically friendly death-care option. She is the founder and CEO of Recompose, which aspires to be the first “natural organic reduction” funeral home in the U.S.


“Frankly, I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s real now.”

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    In the seven years since Spade formally launched the idea, which started as a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project, she has worked with scientists in Eastern Washington and North Carolina to study how human bodies decompose in soil. (One trial involved the bodies of six supporters who’d volunteered their remains for research.) The studies demonstrated that the resulting compost met — and sometimes exceeded — state and federal safety standards for pathogens and metals that could be dangerous to humans, animals, or nearby plants. (Also important: The soil smelled like soil and nothing else.)

    In other words, according to the research, carefully and properly composted human remains are safe enough to use in a household garden.

    Troy Hottle, a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been studying the financial and ecological costs of funerary options, including “recomposition,” with researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands. “Recompose gets as close to the natural process of decomposition [as] you’d assume a body would undergo before we had an industrialized society,” Hottle said. “In an urban environment, which is where the global population is growing and land use is at a premium, it’s the most efficient and environmentally sound method of burial.”

    Spade has also been assembling an advisory board of scientists, attorneys, and death-care experts (Hottle has joined as a science adviser, a volunteer position); looking at properties for the first Recompose (lead contenders are in SODO); collaborating with architects and engineers to design the building; and, in the past year and a half, talking to lawmakers in Olympia.

    Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who co-sponsored the bill in the House, first heard about the idea while campaigning in 2016. “I was doorbelling and met some people who were organizers of the project,” she said. “This is one of those bills that just gains a following — I got a lot of emails from folks in support of this, a combination of environmentalists and people thinking about practical approaches to end-of-life issues.”

    “Of all the options for the disposition of human remains, this would be by far the most environmentally friendly,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who first proposed the bill in the Senate. “It’s just what used to happen before the arrival of $5,000 caskets covered with ecologically unfriendly varnishes and all the rest.”


    What about the “ick factor?” Was that an impediment to getting the bill passed?

    “That’s the funny thing about the Legislature,” Pedersen said with a laugh. “It’s just a slice of the general public. So a few people were simply icked out by death and didn’t want to think about it, but the easiest way to get them through it was to say: ‘Hey, if you don’t want to think about this again, let’s just get the bill passed!’”

    The legislation earned comfortable bipartisan majorities in both chambers: 80-16 in the House and 36-11 in the Senate. (Several legislators who voted against the bill either did not respond or declined to comment.)

    Pedersen is confident that Inslee will sign the legislation, particularly because the governor is running for president on a clean-energy platform.

    “It would be a big surprise if he was anything but all over it,” Pedersen said. “It’s Washington doing an environmentally friendly, path-breaking thing.”

    If the bill becomes law, Spade hopes to have the first Recompose facility open and running by late 2020 or early 2021.


    “Well, I’ll just have to hold on until then,” Wes McMahan said. He’s devoting some of his retirement time to growing a “food forest” on his property in Randle, “so my grandchildren will know where food comes from.” Someday, he hopes, his composted remains will nourish a tree with a swing for future generations.

    “Maybe a big maple tree with a nice, strong branch for that swing,” he said. “Hopefully, that’ll be known as Granddad’s Tree!”

     

    This story has been updated with the correct date of when the law would take effect, should Inslee sign the bill.

    Brendan Kiley: or bkiley@seattletimes.com. Brendan Kiley is the Seattle Times arts and culture reporter.