Sarah Griffith has been a nurse for 35 years as well as an avid gardener, so when she told her family her burial wish, no one was shocked. She’s been composting for years.
“There’s something very joyful for me about creating soil and creating a great environment for plants, so it all kind of goes in with that nurturing part of being a nurse and caring about people and caring about the earth,” Griffith said.
In conversations with her family, Griffith, 59, said she didn’t intend to die at all – but composting would be her preference.
“I want to keep the body for as long as I can, but when I’m done, it would just be really nice if it went on to help something else,” Griffith said.
On May 21, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that legalized two new methods of disposition of human bodies: natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis. Those methods are more commonly referred to as human composting and liquid cremation, respectively.
Recompose, the first of its kind natural organic reduction facility in Seattle, will be the testing ground for this new law. It draws on the research of Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University who is listed as anadviser to the company. Through Carpenter-Boggs’ research, six people have gone through the process.
“We start with a blend of wood chips, alfalfa and straw,” said Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose. “We lay a bed of that material into the vessel, and then lay the body on top of it, which is an experience we invite family and friends to help with, and we actually fill the vessel with more of that same material.
“In the end, I like to think of the body as coccooned in this wood chip, alfalfa and straw mixture on its way to the next part of the journey,” she said, noting that the materials are an ideal ratio of carbon and nitrogen.
The law does not take effect until May 1, which gives the state Department of Licensing time to iron out the kinks. On Nov. 18, the department announced its intent to consult with the state Board of Health in the process.
“I think it became pretty clear pretty quickly that these questions about maybe some high-risk communicable disease, and the byproducts of these processes, and most specifically natural organic reduction, just raised some questions about public health, health and safety related to those diseases potentially, so they said we think that’s outside the scope of our authority,” said Stuart Glasoe, health policy adviser for the state Board of Health.
Dr. Scott Lindquist, a state epidemiologist for communicable diseases, was among those who raised concerns during the lawmaking stages. His main concerns are prion diseases, which are rare neurodegenerative disorders, as well as tuberculosis and Ebola, but he thinks proper safeguards can be put in place to keep natural organic reduction safe.
“The composting process can kill through heat and time the main pathogens that are in your body, so I’m less worried about that than I am about these infectious diseases like tuberculosis and prions,” Lindquist said.
A potential fix would be to simply excludepeople with those conditions from human composting, Lindquist said.
The diseases mentioned are rare – there are only about 200 cases of tuberculosis a year in Washington, Lindquist said.
Spade said Recompose will comply with any rules set by the Board of Health and the Department of Licensing.
“The reason it was developed by farmers and agriculture institutions was because of the safety and efficacy of the process,” Spade said.
The human composting process creates about a cubic yard of usable material. The family can take part or all of the material; otherwise the company will donate it to various conservation efforts. Currently, Recompose has a partnership with a conservation forest in southwest Washington.
“It’s our vision to have a number of conservation partnerships, so that eventually families could choose from two or three different places where they could donate the soil if they don’t want all of it,” Space said.
Recompose will break ground on its facility in mid-2020, and it should be up and running by spring 2021. Recompose spokeswoman Anna Swenson said about 14,000 people have signed up for the company’s newsletter, and Recompose will be able to provide services all over the country and world. Swenson encourages those outside King County to arrange body transport with their local funeral director.
Jeanne Davies, 75, said she hopes to live to use this method. She said if she could do her life over again, she would have been a farmer, so composting makes the most sense to her.
“You get this lovely dirt back, and good dirt is hard to find these days, so whatever is left of me I’d like to know that it goes back to the Earth and gives some life back,” Davies said.
For Davies, the biggest drawback of human composting – besides a ticking clock – is the price. She also is considering donating her body to science. But when she talks about cost, she can’t help but bring up the cost to the environment.
“Cremation costs the Earth a lot of money just in carbon, in the burning element,” Davies said. She said she’s happy there’s another “option which doesn’t cost the earth very much at all to get rid of you.”
The $5,500 pricetag includes more than just the composting. Much like traditional services, families can have a viewing of the body in Recompose’s green, plant-filled space. The family also can participate in putting their loved one in the “Recompose vessel.”
Swenson said Recompose’s pricing falls in the mid-range for disposition options, with cremation without ceremony being the least expensive. However, she said the company will start a community fund in mid-2020 that people can donate to in order to defray the costs for others.
Rob Goff, of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, said his initial concern with the new law was that it might not incorporate other essential aspects of funeral ceremonies. The funeral directors association is headquartered in Spokane Valley.
“What we’ve done is opened up options for people,” Goff said. “I don’t believe any of the options will overshadow any of the current options that we have for disposition. I think there’s going to be certain people that would prefer one method of disposition over another, and so having more options available to the residents of the state of Washington is a good thing.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.