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The nation’s first funeral house for human composting is now open in Washington state

LOS ANGELES (RNS) – With the first funeral home to compost people in Washington state now up and running, death specialists say this new and environmentally friendly practice is vital as burials fill up and people follow more sustainable practices search.

And in California, where the massive number of deaths from COVID-19 has flooded funeral homes and even resulted in air quality regulations for cremation being suspended in Los Angeles County, a legislature is hoping the Golden State is the next place to be the process of converting bodies into being legalized is soil.

For Cristina Garcia, a Democrat in the California State Assembly, the pandemic situation in LA is “another sad reminder that we need to legalize a greener option as soon as possible,” she said in a statement.

On Tuesday (February 9th), Garcia introduced laws that give California residents the legal option to turn their bodies to earth. It’s her second time doing it after her first human composting bill failed to make it out of a Senate budget committee.

RELATED: California residents may be able to compost their bodies after they die

Human composting is seen as a more sustainable alternative to cremation, which requires fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide, which pollutes and contributes to climate change. The process of composting a body was first introduced by Katrina Spade, who founded Recompose, the Washington-based company that began operations in late December.

In this April 19, 2019 file photo, Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, a company that seeks to use composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains, poses for a photo in a Seattle cemetery showing a sample of Compost material left over from the decomposition of a cow using a combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson, File)

Washington state legalized the process in 2019.

Here’s how it works: A dead body is broken down through a process known as natural organic reduction by placing the corpse in a reusable receptacle, covering it with wood chips, and ventilating it, creating an environment for microbes and essential bacteria.

The body turns completely into earth over a period of 30 days, the company said. Recompose is equipped with 10 vessels.

Anna Swenson, a spokeswoman for Recompose, told the Religion News Service on Feb.2 that so far 10 bodies had been placed in jars to go through the human composting process. Some had already been turned to earth while others were still in the vessels.

Since August, Recompose has been offering prepayment options for people who want to make these arrangements for themselves or their loved ones. The cost: $ 5,500 under the precompose plan. A payment plan of $ 25 to $ 500 per month is available.

In early February, Swenson announced that around 550 people from around the world had signed up for precompose.

RELATED: For $ 5,500, Get Your Body Composted in Washington for a Green Funeral

The costs flow into the actual soil conversion process and into the submission of the death certificate. It also includes the option of a virtual ceremony performed by staff during what Recompose calls “insertion”, the insertion of the body into the vessel. This marks the moment when the body begins to transform into soil, says Recompose.

The insertion looks different for everyone. It can be faith guides or special speakers, slide shows with pictures, music, or a ceremony modeled on the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “is nature’s way of reusing carbon atoms that move from the atmosphere into organisms on earth and then back into the atmosphere over and over again.”

Mount Saint Helens, background, rises behind Bells Mountain Forest in southern Washington.  Photo by Abby Wilcox

Mount St. Helens, background, rises behind the Bells Mountain Forest in southern Washington. Photo by Abby Wilcox

This ritual “reminds us of our place in this cycle and the transition of our person from their human form to part of the natural collective,” said Recompose. The ceremony includes candlelight and guided breathing as the Recompose staff highlight how plant material “drives” the transformation of the body and thanks the person for their “gift to the planet”.

As part of the plan, the resulting soil will be donated to Bells Mountain Forest in Washington state. However, family and friends can also take the soil home with them. Transportation of the body to the Recompose Facility from anywhere in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties of Washington state is covered. People outside of Washington state can register, but they must arrange for the body to be transported separately.

This would apply to people like Cori Ruetten, 33, who live in a state where the process is not yet legal.

Maryland Ruetten was ready to sign up for precompose when she first heard about the payment plan, but she decided to wait and see if the process was legalized in her home state.

“I was very, very excited to hear about this (Recompose),” said Ruetten. “I was disappointed to find out that this is not legal everywhere.”

For Ruetten, the reassembly process “brings us back to earth, maybe the way we wanted it to be”. She finds human composting affordable and environmentally friendly.

Ruetten said it makes sense to plan your own death benefits through programs like Precompose. When her father died unexpectedly in 2016, she had to organize a funeral on a budget with no plan in place. She chose cremation for financial reasons.

“When his daughter took over, I was impressed at the same time how expensive and how plastic everything is that is available today, and I also mourned,” said Ruetten.

“I think a lot of the grieving process is guessing yourself and spending all this ridiculous money,” she added.

The Recompose vessel array can accommodate ten bodies.  Photo by Sabel Roizen

The Recompose vessel array can accommodate 10 bodies. Photo by Sabel Roizen

In California, proponents believe the human composting bill is in better shape than it was last year.

Annabel Snider, a senior assistant for Garcia’s office, said this time she had already looked into the state’s cemetery and funeral bureau so the agency could make suggestions and changes early on.

RELATED: Vatican To Catholics: Cremation May Be Ok, But Don’t Dispel Ashes!

Snider is also aware of the opposition of some groups to the law, such as the California Catholic Conference, which spoke out against the proposed measure last year.

“We believe the ‘transformation’ of the remains would create an emotional distance rather than awe for them,” California Catholic Conference spokesman Steve Pehanich told RNS in 2020.

The Vatican issued guidelines for the treatment of remains in 2016 as the use of cremation grew in popularity. If cremation was chosen, the Vatican urged that the remains be kept “in a sacred place” such as a cemetery or church area.

“Even with cremated remains, they have ordered that they remain in a place of community that reflects the dignity of the human body and its connection to the immortal soul,” said Pehanich.

Snider said Feb. 9 that Garcia’s office would go to the Catholic Conference in California to discuss the bill. For Snider, it is an encouragement to the Catholic Church to allow cremation after long banning it.

Human composting, she said, is “something many people in California would like to have as an option”.

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