Human Composting Becomes an Option in Washington, But Is It for Everyone?

Human composting will soon be a choice in our state, but Knute Berger has a different end in mind
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
AFTER LIFE: Walking through Lake View Cemetery in Seattle is a walk through Seattle’s past; the cemetary holds the gravesites of the city’s founders as well as famous citizens

This article appears in print in the August 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

On a recent morning, I asked my wife if she wanted to be composted.

“Now?” she asked. “Can I finish my breakfast first?”

People in Seattle do want to be good planetary citizens. And so earlier this year, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill legalizing human composting. Washington is the first state to legalize turning the dead into compost, perhaps the first such law in the world.

We in the Evergreen State sort our trash into recycling, garbage and organic matter. Now we’ll have a choice in how we and our loved ones enter the afterlife: traditional or green burial, cremation, options that are already legal, or via a compost bin designed for human bodies. The law takes effect in May 2020. A local company that promoted the new law is currently looking for a composting warehouse in Seattle.

It works like this: A body is wrapped in organic material such as wood chips and other compostables, put in a receptacle, and exposed to microbes and warm temperatures. In roughly four weeks, the entire corpse—bones and all—will have been reduced to non-smelly dirt. The process uses none of the chemicals of embalming (like formaldehyde), requires no permanent burial plots (which are inconvenient where land is scarce, like in cities), and is much more carbon-friendly than cremation. Your funeral won’t contribute to global warming.

Like ashes, the resulting dirt belongs to your loved ones to do with as they please. They can add it to a garden, grow a tree with it or scatter you like dust in the wind (cue song by Kansas).

I fully support human compost. We are all going to end up that way, one way or another. But that would not be the death journey I would choose.

The late Seattle writer and TV personality Greg Palmer once did a series for PBS called Death: The Trip of a Lifetime, which looked at death rituals around the world. Palmer, who passed away in 2009, was mourned by those of us who knew him. Oddly, after he died, I received a surprise invitation in my email to follow him on Facebook. His post-life trip included a legacy in social media!

I would prefer a legacy that involves my remains. Some people donate their bodies to science. In fact, donated bodies contributed to a study at Washington State University to test human composting. If I were to donate my body to science, I would choose the science of archaeology.

I’ve had a lifelong interest in those who dig up the past, frequently the dead—from mummies in the tombs of Egypt to the Iron Age bog bodies of Denmark to the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in England. Burial rituals, old bones, grave artifacts, old cemeteries: These help tell the story of humanity. And now, recovered DNA from old bones, from cave-dwelling Neanderthals to 17th-century plague victims, are filling gaps in our knowledge. I delight in imagining a time, 500 or 1,000 years from now, when some future scientists—if they still exist—will glean information about our time and place from my burial or remains.

I have had a long-standing interest in time capsules and coordinated the Washington Centennial Time Capsule at the state Capitol in Olympia in 1989—a 400-year project of propelling artifacts into the future. I view my grave in a similar light: a personal time capsule that isn’t so much about me but an offering to the future. Of course, we don’t know what that future will be. But I want to be ready to be useful to posterity if needed.

In addition, while I understand the appeal of cremation and composting, as a fan of history, I also love a good graveyard. Walking through a Seattle cemetery, like Lake View on Capitol Hill, is literally like walking through the pages of Seattle’s past in a parklike setting: There are the graves of city founders, such as the Dennys, Yeslers, Borens and old Doc Maynard, whose gravestone is being uplifted by the roots of a giant sequoia. There’s Henry Atkins, our first mayor; Denise Levertov, the poet; Joe Gandy, the Seattle World’s Fair promoter; actors and martial artists Bruce and Brandon Lee…the list goes on.

And there are also unknowns, grave markers that suggest the complexity of the past. Right next to Bruce Lee’s grave, for example, and half hidden under a hedge is the marker for a P.J. Malone, middle-aged Irish immigrant from County Mayo who died in 1879. The Irish have largely been ignored in Seattle history, unlike, say, the Scandinavians. Who was this fellow? If not for his flattened tombstone next to a celebrity gravesite, that question likely would never be asked.

A bit later after breakfast, I prodded my wife about composting. She said she liked the idea, especially if her soil self could be used for reforestation or something of that kind. But she said she’d like a marker, too, next to mine, wherever that might be. Maybe a little of her dirt could be there, too.

Our afterlives might begin with different funereal routes or different rites, but we do want to end up in the same place.

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