Shortly after the birth of my niece, my mom told me that my dad wanted a Tibetan sky burial — which involves leaving your remains to be picked clean by vultures — when he died. She followed this up by saying that there was no way in hell that’s going to happen and that we need to just cremate him instead.
It was a strange conversation to have right after visiting my sister and her day-old child, and it was not a conversation I enjoyed. Thinking about the death of anyone I love is uncomfortable, but with my parents, it’s unfathomable.
However, I’m glad it happened. Death, after all, is inevitable, and we should know our loved ones’ wishes when it comes to that point. We need to know our own wishes before it comes to that point, if we wish to have any say at all.
For inhabitants of Washington state, our after-death options are soon to expand to composting., The Washington State Legislature, on April 9, passed SB 5001: Concerning human remains, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday, May 21. The law will go into effect May 1, 2020.
The bill also allow for alkaline hydrolysis, which reduces the body to “bone fragments and essential elements ... using heat, pressure, water, and base chemical agents.”
Human composting and hydrolysis, when compared to the more traditional casket burials and cremation, can seem rather high-tech and complex for dealing with a process that is, after all, 100% natural. My own mother’s reaction as I was telling her about composting human remains was something along the lines of, “Why would you ever want to do that?”
Why would you? We have been burying our dead for at least 130,000 years and potentially since the beginning of Homo sapiens as a species. Giving up burial isn’t as simple as trading in your phone for the newest technology — it’s trading in a practice that has been with us as long as humans have been human for something many have never heard about.
For Recompose, a Seattle-based public-benefit corporation that hopes to begin offering human composting services in 2020, this provides “an environmentally sustainable, urban-focused method of disposition of the dead.”
Today’s world is vastly different from the Earth of 130,000 years ago, and human composting provides one method of handling that change. There are over 7.5 billion people alive today and within the next century, nearly every single one of those 7.5 billion bodies will need to be disposed of.
Just in the past 24 hours, about 150,000 people died. All 150,000 will not receive traditional burials or cremations, but even if a small amount do, that still has a large negative impact on the environment.
Traditional burials in the United States often include formaldehyde-based embalming, which slows down but does not stop the decomposition process. The casket and other buried items will also not last forever, and at some point in the future, all that is buried, including the carcinogenic formaldehyde, will enter the soil and water around it.
Cremation, though it does not take up the land a burial does, is also quite harmful for the environment as many cremations are done by creating heat through burning natural gas for 45 to 90 minutes.
The burning of human bodies and wooden caskets also often releases harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, vaporized mercury from dental fillings, and dioxides created through the burning of chlorine in the casket or body into the air.
Human composting, also called natural organic reduction, adds another more environmentally friendly option for after-death care. The process proposed by Recompose would result in approximately one cubic yard of dirt per person, “much like the topsoil you'd buy at your local nursery,” according to their website.
Yeah, you’ll be dead, and maybe it doesn’t matter so much to you what happens to your remains after you die. However, if you don’t care what happens to your remains, choosing a more environmentally friendly option is one last good deed you can do for those that will come after you.
Reach writer Rachel Suominen at email@example.com. Twitter: @_rsuominen
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