HUMAN COMPOSTING AND ALKALINE HYDROLYSIS – GREENER DISPOSITION OF REMAINS IN WASHINGTON

Thanks to the Estate Planning and Probate Group of Helsell Fetterman for this summary of interesting new options for Washingtonians concerning a somewhat morbid issue – body disposition.

Washingtonians will soon have two new greener options for the disposition of human remains. In May 2020, natural organic reduction (a.k.a. human composting or decomposition) and alkaline hydrolysis (a.k.a. aquamation, green cremation, and liquid cremation) will be legal options for the disposition of remains. While many states already permit alkaline hydrolysis (hereafter, “aquamation”), Washington will be the first state to allow human composting.

Aquamation. Like cremation, aquamation reduces human remains to bone fragments (similar to cremated ashes) that can be returned to family and friends to be scattered or stored. Aquamation uses approximately 10% of the energy that is used for flame-based cremation, with no emissions of mercury, carbon dioxide, or particle matter into the air. Water and an alkali solution of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (not an acid – on the opposite end of the pH scale from acid) are heated to speed up the decomposition process. After about 3 hours, tissues are dissolved and only bones remain. The water involved in the aquamation process is then either processed like other wastewater or given to farmers to use in agriculture (such as sod farming).
Human Composting. Human composting will reduce human remains to useable soil (a cubic yard – or several wheelbarrows of soil) that can be returned to friends or family to be used in a garden or donated to conservation efforts. Washington State University conducted the initial study to determine if human remains could be safely and effectively composted. The WSU study revealed that the resulting compost smelled like soil (and nothing else), met or exceeded state and federal safety standards (reducing or killing pathogens, soluble metals, and pharmaceuticals), and was unrecognizable as human remains (chemically, microbiologically, and visually).

Recompose, Inc. a Seattle company that sponsored the research at WSU, hopes to open a facility in late 2020 or early 2021 that will feature approximately 75 reusable vessels for human composting. A body will be placed in an aerated vessel and covered with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw (a process that they hope family and friends will be involved with like a memorial service). The vessel creates an environment for naturally occurring microbes and bacteria to compost a body in approximately four weeks. According to its website, Recompose Inc. estimates that a metric ton of carbon dioxide will be saved each time someone chooses organic reduction over cremation or conventional burial.

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