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US State Tries New Way to Deal With Human Remains

An artist's image of what a compost center for human bodies could look like.
U.S. State Tries New Way to Deal With Human Remains
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The top official in the American state of Washington has approved a new way of dealing with human remains. The law permits approved businesses to compost them – in other words, to turn bodies into dirt.

Until now, states have permitted bodies only to be buried or burned.

Governor Jay Inslee says the law came about because of his neighbor.

Katrina Spade
Katrina Spade

Her name is Katrina Spade. While she was a graduate student in architecture, Spade began researching the funeral industry. She did not like its usual ways of burying or burning bodies. She wondered if Americans could deal with human remains similar to the way farmers deal with animal remains.

In time, Spade found that human bodies would decompose quickly in a container filled with small pieces of wood, alfalfa and straw.

Last year, Washington State University tested the idea on six bodies.

And it worked.

Spade now has a business that lets people choose to compost their bodies. The idea is for bodies to stay for 30 days in closed containers. During that time, they will turn into enough dirt to fill a small pickup truck. Friends and family may then take the dirt and spread it in a place that is special to them, or use it to plant vegetables or a tree.

“It gives meaning and use to what happens to our bodies after death,” said Nora Menkin. She is the head of the People’s Memorial Association, which helps people plan for funerals.

Other supporters say that composting is easy on the environment, especially compared to usual American funerals. Such practices involve chemicals, carbon dioxide or coffins that use land.

The law permitting composting will take effect in May 2020.

Jamie Pederson is a state lawmaker who sponsored the measure. He says he has received angry emails from people who object to the idea. They say it does not honor the dead.

Pederson said those people often believe their dead loved one would be thrown outside and covered in old food. But that idea is not right, he said; the process will be respectful.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story based on a report by the Associated Press. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

compost - v. to change something into a decayed mixture that is used to improve the soil in a garden

graduate - adj. of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree​

architecture - n. the art or science of designing and creating buildings​

alfalfa - n. a type of plant that is grown mostly as food for farm animals​

straw - n. the dry stems of wheat and other grain plants​

coffin - n. a box in which a dead person is buried

sponsor - v. someone who takes the responsibility for someone or something

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