It’s never boring living in Washington state, the land of legalized marijuana, orcas, lots of rain, a quasi-socialist city government and now the chance to become at one with the soil — extra quick.
Literally. We’re the first state to legalize human composting.
It’s not quite “Soylent Green” (the 1973 dystopian movie where dead people are made into food for a starving world), but it feels like a step in that direction. Some are calling it the chance to have “a better, greener death.”
This slogan goes better with some religions than others. The Christian flocks with ancient roots have lots of problems with this,
Let’s start with how the Seattle Times reported on it:
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5001, “concerning human remains,”making Washington the first state in the U.S. to legalize human composting.
The law, which takes effect May 1, 2020, recognizes “natural organic reduction” and alkaline hydrolysis (sometimes called “liquid cremation”) as acceptable means of disposition for human bodies. Until now, Washington code had permitted only burial and cremation.
It’s part of a project called “Recompose,” also known as the Urban Death Project before being renamed, for obvious reasons.
The Recompose model is more like an urban crematorium (bodies go in, remains come out), but using the slower, less carbon-intensive means of “organic reduction,” or composting.
The process, which involves using wood chips, straw and other materials, takes about four weeks and is related to methods of “livestock composting” that ranchers and farmers have been using for several years. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University, says that practice can turn a 1,500-pound steer — bones and all — into clean, odorless soil in a matter of months.
So that’s what farmers do with all those dead cows and horses. Do you get to tell your family where “you” get to be planted once you’ve turned into dirt? With the tomatoes out back? In the front flower bed?
Energy is a recurring theme for supporters of the alternative burial movement: Most say they began looking into these options because they wanted to round out their lives in a greener way.
"Environmental concerns are very important to me and play an active role in my day to day choices," Ms Schoen says…
Recompose touts their process as using "1/8 the energy of cremation", saving an estimated metric ton of CO2 emissions per person over conventional methods.
In Washington state, which has one of the highest rates of cremation in the country, Ms Menkin says it could make a real difference.
Well, that doesn’t surprise me that people wish to ‘die green’ here. But what’s missing in these stories about burials? What institution is most involved in end-of-life issues? Might religious leaders have an opinion about this?
The New York Times was one of the few outlets to bring this up. It helped to have a headline taken out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Or in Washington state, you could now be compost.”
The Times gave one paragraph to the opposition — quoting a paper source, of course. Who needs to talk to people on both sides of an issue?
The Catholic Church had opposed the bill, saying that composting ran contrary to church doctrine. “Disposing human remains in such a manner fails to show enough respect for the body of the deceased,” Joseph Sprague, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, wrote in a letter to a legislative committee.
There was no explanation of a theology of the body or why those pesky Catholics (along with the Eastern Orthodox) aren’t lining up to support this idea.
Looking around, this Los Angeles Times piece was the only one I found that dug up opposition to the idea (mainly from funeral directors). It also noted the millions of dollars that Recompose is going to make, thanks to this new law. What’s also of note is the organization’s domain name ends with a (dot) life, as in recompose.life. Interesting branding, that.
Readers can, as always, turn to religious news options. Crisis magazine was the one place I found that explained Catholic objections to recomposting, pointing out that the body is considered to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Even when that person’s spirit has left it, it’s still considered sacred.
People in both Old and New Testaments went to tremendous pains to gather the bodies of their dead to give them a decent burial. The U.S. military does the same thing with fallen soldiers. How does “composting” bodies change these attitudes?
Those are questions reporters could have brought up instead of serving as unpaid advertisements for this Recompose outfit.
Me personally: I don’t care either way how this falls out, but it does feel like another notch on the belt of our governor, Jay Inslee, as he runs for president under a green banner.
A bit more emotional distance would have helped coverage. What do other religious groups: Jews, Muslims, etc., think about this. Do they have a position on what happens to the body after death? Is simply everyone in Washington state gaga on this idea? I think not, but judging from local media coverage, the major impression is that they are.