On May 21, Washington became the first state in the US to legalize human composting when the state legislature signed Bill 5001. This bill, which will go into effect on May 1, 2020, is a huge step forward for modernizing and decreasing the environmental impact of how we take care of our dead.
Everyone knows that everyone dies. But when pondering our human mortality, many people focus on the event of death itself without considering that once someone passes, something then must be done with their body.
Currently, most bodies are either buried or cremated. But burial and cremation both have a surprisingly high toll on our environment. When a body is buried, it is first injected with chemicals such as formaldehyde, and then placed in a nearly indestructible casket before being placed in a grave. These graves take up a lot of space, and the graveyards they reside at are rarely visited by families of the deceased, unlike parks and other similar outdoor spaces, which are frequently visited when the weather is nice. Currently, Earth’s human population is clocking in at over seven billion, a number which is unlikely to decrease any time soon. With so many people alive on our planet, graveyards are quickly becoming impractical and antiquated, as we simply don’t have the space to continue to set aside land that will only be utilized by our deceased. Furthermore, the chemicals used in embalming can leech into the soil surrounding our grave sites. According to Recompose, a Washington-based corporation that converts human remains into soil, 2.7 million people die in the U.S. each year. We simply do not have the space to bury 2.7 million people each year, and our environment cannot take the pollution that could come from putting that many caskets in the ground.
Cremation does not take up as much space as traditional burials, but the practice does release carbon dioxide and particulates into the air. According to Smithsonian Magazine, a little more than half of Americans choose cremation instead of a traditional burial, and Washington State’s cremation rate was the highest in the nation in 2017, at 76.4 percent of people opting for cremation. Taking this into consideration, the importance of human composting for our state becomes obvious, as it will help us stop pouring toxins into the air when cremating our deceased.
Recompose conducted a study comparing the environmental impact of human composting to traditional burial and cremation, as well as natural burial, to make sure that human composting truly is the least harmful burial method to our environment. Human cremation performed the best in all categories studied, according to Recompose’s website, and Recompose estimates that “a metric ton of carbon dioxide will be saved every time someone chooses recomposing over traditional burial or cremation.” The study’s results speak for themselves: abandoning traditional burial methods in favor of eco-friendly options like human composition is imperative to protecting our planet’s future.
Those that opposed Bill 5001 likely did not understand the process of human cremation. Washington Senator Jamie Pedersen, who sponsored Bill 5001, said that he received many angry emails expressing their disgust. “The image they have is that you’re going to toss Uncle Henry out in the backyard and cover him with food scraps,” Pedersen said, but Recompose’s plans for their future Seattle facility is anything but undignified. Recompose envisions a facility resembling an indoor garden, with their “reusable, hexagonal recomposition vessels” stacked in a honeycomb-like fasion. Their hope is that such a facility will provide families with a respectful place to honor their loved ones. When bodies have finished “recomposing,” a process that takes about thirty days, families will be able to take some or all of the soil produced home. This soil could then either be scattered like many do after cremations, or could be used plant trees and vegetables, nurturing new life.
Rethinking longstanding traditions is always hard, especially when those traditions concern how we care for our loved ones, especially after they are no longer with us. But, as human composting beautifully illustrates, embracing change, no matter how weird or off-putting it may seem initially, is imperative for the continued improvement of our society. Washington’s legalization of human composting is not just the future of human burial; it is a brighter future for us all.