PROVIDENCE − When you die, do you want to be pumped full of formaldehyde, placed into a beautiful casket and entombed in a concrete vault under the ground? Turned into ashes in a crematorium? Buried in a plain wood coffin and be allowed to decay naturally?
A Rhode Island representative is asking the legislature to think about legalizing another way to go when you die: human composting.
Rep. Michelle McGaw, D-Little Compton, Portsmouth, Tiverton, who filed H 6045 to legalize the practice, said “natural organic reduction,” or human composting, has been in the news a lot lately, after Vermont, California and New York all recently legalized the practice, following the lead of Oregon, Washington and Colorado. That news coverage led to few constituents approaching her about sponsoring a bill.
“It starts a conversation,” McGaw said. “What it would look like here, if any funeral directors in Rhode Island wanted to take it on as an alternative.”
McGaw said her constituents appear to be interested for a variety of environmental reasons, including using no open space, the reduction in carbon dioxide associated with composting and the lack of chemicals used.
“In a much more general sense, people have reached out to me because they’re interested in doing things in a much more natural environment, and this seemed like a logical option,” she said.
Rhode Island Funeral Director Association President Allan Bellows if the practice is legalized, funeral directors in the state will find a way to make it happen.
What is human composting?
One of the handful of entities to offer the process, Earth Funeral in Auburn, Washington, started a year ago. The process for them takes about 30 days, leaving behind a cubic yard of rich soil and some bones that are ground into powder, just like with cremation, Spokeswoman Haley Morris sad.
A body is wrapped in a degradable shroud and put into a vessel with wood chips or another form of carbon and the temperature is elevated.
Morris said there are fewer than a “handful” of providers offering the process, only in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Although the funeral home has only been open for a year, demand is outstripping their ability to provide the service, she said.
“I think we’re going to see more and more providers pop up to meet the demand out there,” she said. “It’s being driven by people who want it as an option.”
What are the objections to human composting?
McGaw said when she brought the bill to her fellow legislators, many said they needed to get the pulse of their constituents and that religious objections may top the list.
The Catholic Church relaxed its prohibition against cremation in 1963 but also maintained it has an “adverse attitude” toward the practice, favoring burial, while Judaism also requires burial, as does Islam.
What happens next to the bill?
The bill has been assigned to the corporations committee. It hasn’t received a hearing date yet.
“I’m looking forward to the hearing, getting feedback from the Department of Public Health, funeral directors, people in Rhode Island, to make sure we’re taking into account everyone’s viewpoints,” McGaw said.
While McGaw isn’t making any end-of-life plans, she said that if it becomes legal in Rhode Island, it is one she will probably consider for herself.
“I’m trying to reduce my impact on the planet as much as I can,” she said.
Washington legalized the practice in May 2020, Colorado’s law was effective May 2021, Oregon’s was effective January 2022, Vermont’s was effective January 2023 and New York’s will be effective in late March. There do not appear to be any composting practitioners in Vermont or New York.
While California passed a bill in 2022 legalizing the practice, the law won’t take affect until 2027.
Human composting:Will it soon become legal in Massachusetts?
Are green burials allowed in Rhode Island?
While human composting would require legislative action, “green” burials are already legal in Rhode Island. State law allows cemeteries to set their own rules for burying bodies.
In 2019, the Swan Point Cemetery started offering green burials. Unembalmed bodies are buried about 5 feet deep, the same as for a regular burial, in a rigid but biodegradable container, like a wicker or wood coffin. About two thirds of the 148 plots have been sold and the cemetery is looking toward creating more space, Director of Operations Joe Cavallaro said.
A poll by the National Funeral Directors Association found 60% of those who responded were “interested in exploring ‘green’ funeral options.”
Rhode Island bill does not tackle “water cremation”
The other major alternative to burial and cremation is alkaline hydrolysis. It is not allowed in Rhode Island and the current bill would not legalize it. In many other states where human composting is being considered, the two processes are being considered for legalization in tandem.
McGaw said she did not include the method because she wanted to focus on one issue at a time.
Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in 26 states. It involves a body being submerged in hot water and sodium hydroxide for four to 16 hours, depending on the temperature. The bones are then ground to a powder and returned like ashes, according to a Smithsonian Magazine article.
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