In May of 2019, Washington made history by passing a bill that would allow people to have their loved ones’ remains disposed of via composting, offering an option beyond traditional burial and cremation.
Why Would You Compost?
The law has stirred up more than its fair share of complaints and controversy, and the state senator who introduced the law has received plenty of angry emails. However, advocates of composting note that it offers an environmentally friendly and low-cost option for those who want to avoid the harmful chemical production of the cremation process and the financial expense of a traditional burial. Most burial options cause a significant amount of environmental damage. Traditional burials and cremations cause substantial carbon emissions, and embalming utilizes a variety of carcinogenic chemicals that can damage the local environment. Currently, about 800,000 pounds of formaldehyde are put into the earth every year, disturbing local water supplies. Coffins use over 30 million feet of wood each year in America, contributing to a growing deforestation issue.
Some who oppose the law believe that bodies will be dumped and left to rot, but the process legalized in Washington is actually highly controlled and respectful of human remains. The body is covered in straw, wood chips, or other natural materials. It is kept in a temperature-controlled area, where it breaks down over a period of three to seven weeks. The family then receives the soil that remains, which they can use as they choose. This offers a new way for family members to pay homage to their loved ones and respect their final wishes.
In addition to its environmental benefits, composting is a viable option for those on a limited budget. While a conventional burial may cost up to $25,000 or more, composting could cost roughly $5,500.
Green Alternatives to Burial and Cremation
Composting is the latest in a variety of green burial options that aim to limit the amount of space used by cemeteries, eliminate the carcinogens produced during the cremation process, and avoid the toxins produced during embalming. In addition to composting, Washington residents can also choose alkaline hydrolysis. This procedure, which is legal in 19 other states, breaks down remains with pressure, heat, water, and chemicals. Some cemeteries offer environmentally friendly burial options. They may allow families to have their loved ones buried in biodegradable caskets without being embalmed. This offering could soon reach other states as the first company to offer human composting begins to expand operations throughout the country.
What This Means for Estate Planning in Washington
This major innovation in burial options is likely to affect estate planning law in Washington. The law will not take effect until May of 2020, giving people time to consider their options and adjust their estate plans accordingly. Estate planning ensures that a decedent’s assets are handled appropriately, but it also holds executors responsible for carrying out their loved ones’ final wishes. Some may work with an attorney to draft a will that requests composting, as it limits burial costs and allows people to turn their final remains into nutrient-rich soil that leaves the Earth a healthier place.
Many are encouraged by the future of this technology. Some have requested that they be used to grow specific plants after their death—across the board, this option supports each person’s freedom to choose how their remains are handled and allows people to support new life after they pass.