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Washington Becomes First State to Approve Composting of Human Remains

Loved ones are allowed to keep the soil to spread, just as they might spread the ashes of someone who has been cremated — or even use it to plant vegetables or a tree

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washington, human bodies
Katrina Spade, who promotes using composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains, poses in a cemetery in Seattle as she displays a sample of compost material left from the decomposition of a cow using wood chips, alfalfa and straw, April 19, 2019. VOA

Ashes to ashes, guts to dirt.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation Tuesday making Washington the first state to approve composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains.

It allows licensed facilities to offer “natural organic reduction,” which turns a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into about two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in a span of several weeks.

Loved ones are allowed to keep the soil to spread, just as they might spread the ashes of someone who has been cremated — or even use it to plant vegetables or a tree.

“It gives meaning and use to what happens to our bodies after death,” said Nora Menkin, executive director of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Association, which helps people plan for funerals.

human bodies, washington
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill into law at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., May 21, 2019, that allows licensed facilities to offer “natural organic reduction,” which turns a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into soil in a span of several weeks. VOA

Supporters say the method is an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, which releases carbon dioxide and particulates into the air, and conventional burial, in which people are drained of their blood, pumped full of formaldehyde and other chemicals that can pollute groundwater, and placed in a nearly indestructible coffin, taking up land.

“That’s a serious weight on the Earth and the environment as your final farewell,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure.

Origins of human composting

He said the legislation was inspired by his neighbor Katrina Spade, who was an architecture graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when she began researching the funeral industry. She came up with the idea for human composting, modeling it on a practice farmers have long used to dispose of livestock.

She tweaked the process and found that wood chips, alfalfa and straw created a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature- and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated.

A pilot project at Washington State University tested the idea last year on six bodies, all donors who Spade said wanted to be part of the study. In 2017, Spade founded Recompose, a company working to bring the concept to the public. It’s working on raising nearly $7 million to establish a facility in Seattle and begin to expand elsewhere, she said.

washington, human bodies
A pilot project at Washington State University tested the idea last year on six bodies, all donors who Spade said wanted to be part of the study. Pixabay

State law previously dictated that remains be disposed of by burial or cremation. The law, which takes effect in May 2020, added composting as well as alkaline hydrolysis, a process already legal in 19 other states. The latter uses heat, pressure, water and chemicals like lye to reduce remains.

Angry emails

Cemeteries across the country are allowed to offer natural or “green” burials, by which people are buried in biodegradable shrouds or caskets without being embalmed. Composting could be a good option in cities where cemetery land is scarce, Pedersen said. Spade described it as “the urban equivalent to natural burial.”

The state senator said he has received angry emails from people who object to the idea, calling it undignified or disgusting. “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. To the contrary, he said, the process will be respectful.

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Recompose’s website envisions an atrium-like space where bodies are composted in compartments stacked in a honeycomb design. Families will be able to visit, providing an emotional connection typically missing at crematoriums, the company says.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Edward Bixby, president of the Placerville, California-based Green Burial Council. “I’m curious to see how well it’s received.” (VOA)

Next Story

Washington’s Governor Raises Smoking Age to 21 to Curb Addiction

Other US states that introduced similar laws include California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and Oregon, in addition to the US Pacific territory of Guam and the District of Columbia

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Governor Jay Inslee of Washington has signed a bill into law raising the state’s smoking age to 21 years, making it the ninth in the country to introduce such legislation, officials said.

The new law, which was signed on Friday, raised the legal minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 years old to 21. It was passed in the Washington Senate on Wednesday and will take effect on January 1, 2020.

“We know the risks associated with tobacco and nicotine … We know how much easier it is to prevent our children from becoming addicted in the first place than to treat the addiction later in life, or even worse, to treat the cancers and diseases caused by these products,” Inslee said.

Other than chronic diseases, lifestyle habits like smoking causes cancer too. Pixabay
Other than chronic diseases, lifestyle habits like smoking causes cancer too. Pixabay

The Governor signed the bill in the presence of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, dozens of students, legislators and local health officials at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, the largest city in the state, Xinhua news agency reported.

Ferguson, a strong advocate of the bill, said the legislature was “saving thousands of people in Washington from a lifetime of addiction and smoking-related illness through this bill”.

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Hawaii was the first US state to raise the smoking age to 21 when its Governor signed a bill in 2015 to ban the sale, purchase or use of electronic cigarettes to those under the age of 21. Hawaii’s law went into effect on January 1, 2016.

Other US states that introduced similar laws include California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and Oregon, in addition to the US Pacific territory of Guam and the District of Columbia. (IANS)