Ash to ashes, courage to dirt.
Governor Jay Inslee signed a law on Tuesday, making Washington the first state to approve composting as an alternative to the burial or cremation of human remains.
It allows the authorized structures to offer a "natural organic reduction", which transforms a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into a plot of about two wheelbarrows in an interval of several weeks.
Lovers are allowed to keep the land so that it spreads, just as they could scatter the ashes of someone who has been cremated – or even use it to plant vegetables or a tree.
"It gives meaning and usefulness to what happens to our bodies after death," said Nora Menkin, executive director of the People's Memorial Association in Seattle, which helps people plan funerals.
Supporters say the method is an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, which releases carbon dioxide and particulate matter into the air, and a conventional burial, in which people are drained of their blood, pumped full of formaldehyde and other substances chemicals that can pollute the groundwater and placed in an almost indestructible coffin, which takes land.
"This is a serious burden on the earth and the environment as a final farewell," said Senator Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure.
He said the legislation was inspired by nearby Katrina Spade, who was an architecture student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when he began researching the funeral industry. The idea of human composting came to mind, modeling it on a practice that farmers have long used to dispose of livestock.
He optimized the process and discovered that wood shavings, alfalfa and straw have created a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature and humidity container and rotated.
A Washington State University pilot project tested the idea last year on six bodies, all the donors Spade said they wanted to be part of the study.
In 2017, Spade founded Recompose, a company that works to bring the concept to the public.
The state law previously dictated that remains to be disposed of by burial or cremation. The new law, which will come into force in May 2020, added composting and alkaline hydrolysis, a process already legal in 19 other states. The latter uses heat, pressure, water and chemicals such as lye to reduce the remains.
Cemeteries throughout the country are allowed to offer natural or "green" graves, according to which people are buried in tailors or biodegradable barracks without being embalmed. Composting could be a good option in cities where graveyard land is scarce, said Pedersen.
The state senator said he received angry e-mails from people objecting to the idea, calling it undignified or disgusting.
"The image they have is to throw Uncle Henry in the yard and cover him with leftover food," he said.
On the contrary, he said, the process would be respectful. The Ricompose website provides a space similar to an atrium where the bodies are composted in compartments stacked in a honeycomb design. Families will be able to visit, providing an emotional connection typically lacking in crematoria, the company says.
"It's an interesting concept," said Edward Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council in Placerville, California. "I'm curious to see how much was received."