While our species has never lacked for places they imagine themselves after life (1), these days the options for where one physically goes when shuffled off the mortal coil come down to roughly “buried” or “burned” (2). Thanks to the collective efforts of The Urban Death Project (now “Recompose”), lawmakers in Washington, and quite a few more, we now have a new way to be disposed of legally: “recomposition”.
Or we almost did.
Recomposition, “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil” as originally proposed in Senate Bill 5001 of the 66th Legislature of the State of Washington, is a peculiar concept from this stage of human history. It is generally recognized that large scale industrialization and urbanization has resulted in a winnowing of places to stack the dead. At least in the United States this has led to increased cremation as a means of disposal (50.2 percent of Americans having chosen cremation in 2016) and the continued decline of human burial (“expected to decline […] to 30.3 percent” by 2023). “Recomposition” joins a growing slate of alternatives to these “mainstream” disposal procedures (3).
Though the use of human remains for fertilizer is not a new idea, it is one that can provoke both revulsion and inspiration (4), and to this point has not be a legal option in the United States. In most of the country, death certificates are issued with a box that must either be checked for burial or cremation. The processes involved in human composting, which requires no burial or burning, pose a new disposal category currently without regulation.
Wet with Governor Jay Inslee’s signature, the recently passed version of S. B. 5001, redefines “human remains” to include those which have been subjected to “alkaline hydrolysis” or “natural organic reduction” and defines the sorts of facilities required to carry out such an operation. This latter legalean term, “natural organic reduction”, has replaced the poetic “recomposition” in the final version of the bill though it still allows for human composting. Where there is progress in liberty, there is often turgidness in prose.
Bravo to Washington for serving as an incubator for new and ever bolder forms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and all the stuff that comes before and after them. We are, when we are at our best, stewards to ourselves and our earth(s). I am hopeful to see what we make of them.
1. Consider, for example, Annwn, Asgard, the Asphodel Meadows, Barzakh, Diyu, Elysium, Hades, Hamistagan, Heaven, Hell, Iriy, Jahannam, Mictlan, Naraka, Purgatory, Tian, Tuonella, Valhalla, Yomi, and Youdu.
2. Science never lacking for heroic ironies offers at least the following for this specific tale. The evidence that is cited as responsible for convincing elected officials that such a means of disposal would not spread pathogens – “a research trial with six human bodies” led by one Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State University – is nowhere yet to be found. At least publicly. And though scant details are known, at least one speaks of a subset of science’s ironic heroes. The half dozen intrepid volunteers who wished for their remains to be used for the research trial demonstrating the safety/efficacy of composting human remains, had their own, “[b]ecause […] the university required” it, “incinerat[ed].” They join the ranks of the nameless who boldly strove across the biomedical landscape toward their horizon.
3. A short list of which includes but is not limited to “cryonics” in which as much as one’s body can be frozen is frozen as solidly as it can be frozen, “eternal reefs” in which the crushed bone material left over from cremations is mixed with concrete and dropped into undersea habitats, “mummification” in which one can get a taste of the pharaonic life, “plastination” in which one’s remains can be injected with plastic to remain semi-recognizable, “resomation” in which one’s tissues are dissolved via heated water and potassium hydroxide and the bones pulverized into fragments (a procedure made legal statewide with the recently passed Washingtonian legislation), and “space burial” in which a fraction of a fraction of an ounce of one’s cremated remains can be jettisoned into low-earth orbit for awhile.
4. A proponent of the bill, state Senator Jamie Pedersen is quoted as saying “The idea that your loved one could become soil that would be the basis for planting a lovely rhododendron or oak tree or whatever you want could be really popular.”