Liquid cremation, composting and other new approaches raise questions about how to honor the dead and the environment
Families looking for an environmentally friendly way to handle a loved one’s remains have a controversial new option in Washington. Is this new procedure respectful of human remains?
SALT LAKE CITY — New methods of dealing with human remains are emerging as families increasingly seek ways to lay a loved one to rest without hurting the environment or spending a lot of money.
They're also challenging long-held beliefs about how to honor the deceased.
In Washington state, lawmakers recently approved legislation that will allow "natural organic reduction," a means by which human remains can be turned into compost that can be spread on lawns or flower beds. Washington also legalized alkaline hydrolysis, a process in which a body is dissolved in a bath of chemicals, which Utah also made legal in 2018.
Both methods have raised objections from religious leaders who say the new methods are disrespectful of the dead. One scholar called natural organic reduction "the ultimate denial of the human soul."
Proponents, however, say that organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis are merely the acceleration of natural processes.
According to Recompose, a Seattle-based company, bodies will be covered with organic materials like straw and woodchips, which over a few weeks, "gently convert human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die." The process was tested last year at the University of Washington using six donated bodies.
The desire to lay a loved one to rest in environmentally friendly ways has also resulted in a resurgence of "natural cemeteries" that do not allow metal coffins, vaults or embalming.
New approaches to burial come as rates of cremation, once a controversial means of laying a loved one to rest, now surpass that of ground burial in the U.S.
Here's a look at some of the newest methods of remains disposal and what people are saying about them — good and bad.
What is human composting?
Washington is the first state to authorize natural organic reduction, which will be legal in May 2020. The process of covering the body with organic material and letting heat and microbes go to work is similar to the method some farmers use to break down the bodies of deceased livestock.
Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose, said a human corpse would be placed in an 8-foot by 4-foot container that is temperature- and moisture-controlled and continuously rotated. After about a month, families would be given the remains, which would amount to about one cubic yard of a mulch-like substance that can be spread over lawns or gardens, Gene Johnson of The Associated Press reported. (One cubic yard is about the amount that can fill two large wheelbarrows.)
There is a great comfort in the idea that when I die, my physical body will undergo a transformation, and I will no longer be human. I will be a part of nature. – Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose
"The finished product smells a lot like top soil you would buy at the nursery. Really beautiful, rich soil," Spade told Business Insider.
Spade said any material not claimed by families would be used on conservation land in the state.
“There is a great comfort in the idea that when I die, my physical body will undergo a transformation, and I will no longer be human. I will be a part of nature, " Spade told J. Brian Charles of Governing magazine.
Supporters of the legislation also note that the process avoids the environmental hazards posed by the traditional — and still most popular — forms of remains disposal: cremation and burial.
Crematoriums emit carbon dioxide and other gases and particles into the air. One cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel, Governing magazine reported. Yet more than half of American families opt for cremation each year, and the National Funeral Directors Association expects that number to rise to 80 percent within the next two decades because of increasing acceptance by faith groups and consumer concern about conventional burials.
Conventional burials with embalming, meanwhile, put toxic chemicals underground and consume natural resources, including wood, steel and concrete, opponents say. In 2017, the average cost of a conventional burial with embalming and a vault was $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, compared to $6,260 for cremation with embalming, a viewing and a funeral.
In response to the new law, the Washington State Catholic Conference issued a statement reminding Catholics that the church strongly recommends that bodies be buried "in cemeteries and other sacred places" and that ashes from cremation be buried instead of being scattered or otherwise distributed. The group also raised concerns about the possibility of potentially deadly viruses being introduced into the environment. And, "the very limited research has yet to be completely peer-reviewed," the statement read.
The company website shows that Recompose isn't ready to open for business. People are invited to sign up for updates on when services will be available, and although The Los Angeles Times reported that the procedure will cost about $5,500, the Recompose website says it's still working on pricing.
As for potential pathogens, Recompose said that there would be some people who would not be eligible for the service, such as anyone who died of a highly contagious disease, such as Ebola, or a prion disease, which causes degeneration of the brain, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Most harmful pathogens, however, would be destroyed as the body breaks down in temperatures that range from 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, the company's website says.
But it's not science, but theology, that makes the process troubling to John M. Grondelski, formerly the associate dean of the the School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Writing for The National Catholic Register, Grondelski said in embracing a "return to nature" in putting people to rest, people diminish the God-given status of human beings.
"Implicit in (the new methods), however, also appears to be the notion that the human person ... is fundamentally not different from other organic matter. Indeed, there is a kind of assumption that man 'owes' something to nature by returning as a nutrient," Grondelski wrote.
What is alkaline hydrolysis?
Another new form of remains disposal, alkaline hydrolysis, is also promoted as a way in which people can choose to return their bodies to nature. In its legislation authorizing natural organic reduction, Washington also allowed alkaline hydrolysis, as Utah did last year.
Also known as liquid cremation, alkaline hydrolysis does not involve fire, but immersing the body in a bath of chemicals in which it dissolves over the course of three to 16 hours, depending on the equipment used. The Cremation Association of North America considers alkaline hydrolysis cremation because heat is involved, and families receive remains in the form of a fine powder resembling powdered sugar.
A sewage plant is a living entity. It (the liquid) is really good for the plant. – Joe Wilson
Also remaining after the process is a coffee-colored fluid that contains no DNA or RNA since the chemicals reduce proteins to amino acids. The solution is sterile and contains amino acids, peptides, sugars and soap. Pathogens are killed by the heat.
In an interview with the Deseret News last year, Joe Wilson, CEO of an Indiana company that makes equipment for alkaline hydrolysis, called the liquid produced by the process "a nutritious broth" suitable for fertilizing lawns and plants, and said the liquid benefits sewage plants into which it is pumped.
"A sewage plant is a living entity. It (the liquid) is really good for the plant," Wilson said.
It took two legislative sessions for the bill authorizing alkaline hydrolysis to pass in Utah, not because of organized opposition from religious groups, but because “it took some legislators time to warm up to this from a personal, moral standpoint,” Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, chief sponsor of the bill, said in 2018.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not take a stand on the bill. Church policy states that it “does not normally encourage cremation,” but leaves the decision to families.
In some states, such as New Hampshire, Catholic leaders have also spoken out about alkaline hydrolysis, although in Utah, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake did not take a position when the bill was being debated in 2018.
“Cremation has been approved for decades and the method, as long as it respects the body, is not a concern. We do teach that the ashes should be placed in a sacred space following any form of cremation,” Jean Hill, government liaison for the Diocese of Salt Lake, told the Deseret News.
Other states that allow alkaline hydrolysis include Illinois, Maine, Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Vermont.
Information on natural bodies and body farms
The practice of embalming corpses, a common practice in the 20th century in the U.S., became mainstream after the Civil War and the assassination of a president, Governing magazine reported.
"Union soldiers killed on the battlefield were initially left to decompose in place, but that gruesome reality soon led to the practice of 'field embalming,' in which corpses were preserved for the train ride home and a proper funeral," J. Brian Charles wrote.
Then Abraham Lincoln's body was embalmed for its train tour to 180 cities. "People marveled at his lifelike appearance, and the demand for embalming quickly began to rise," Charles wrote. So, too, did the cost of preparing a body for burial — both in dollars and cost to the environment.
Today, however, Americans who still want to be buried in the earth have more options for greener, cheaper burials. At "natural cemeteries" around the country, coffins must be biodegradable and bodies can't be embalmed. Such "eco-friendly" burials are offered at Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in Florida (motto: "From Eden we come ... to Eden we shall return") and at Greenhaven Preserve in South Carolina, where grave markers must be made of natural stone that is indigenous to the state. And there are companies that provide plans for building your own coffin.
Other people are choosing to opt out of any substantive costs related to their death by donating their bodies to a "body farm" where forensic students study decomposition. It takes anywhere from six months to 2 years for a body to be reduced to skeleton, said Fawn Fitter, writing for The New York Times about her decision to donate her body to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
But in planning your post-mortal-coil future, better make a Plan B if you're thinking about a whole-body donation.
In the United Kingdom, The Telegraph reported that some universities are having to decline donations because so many people are donating bodies to avoid funeral costs.