UMass seeded Washington state’s new law allowing composting of human remains

  • Katrina Spade, upper left, the founder and CEO of Recompose, a company that hopes to use composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains, looks on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, center, signs a bill into law at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., that allows licensed facilities to offer "natural organic reduction," which turns a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into soil in a span of several weeks. The law makes Washington the first state in the U.S. to approve composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren

  • Katrina Spade displays a sample of compost material left from the decomposition of a cow using a combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw. in a cemetery in Seattle, April 19. AP PHOTO

  • KATRINA SPADE KATRINA SPADE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2019 12:17:12 AM
Modified: 5/24/2019 12:17:02 AM

AMHERST — When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation on Tuesday approving the composting of human remains as an alternative to burial or cremation, Katrina Spade was standing right behind him.

The new law is the first of its kind in the country, and allows for the “natural organic reduction” of bodies into soil, which loved ones can then spread or use to plant something like a tree. Spade’s company, Recompose, co-sponsored a Washington State University study that found the process to be an effective and safe alternative for the disposition of human remains, and built a broad coalition to ensure the legislation passed.

That work, as it turns out, began at the University of Massachusetts.

“This work wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the guidance of a few wonderful professors in the UMass Amherst Architecture Program who saw human composting as a viable — even beautiful — solution for the end of life,” Spade said in a statement.

Spade began looking into the funeral industry when she was a graduate student at UMass. And her master’s thesis was on the idea of human composting, which was modeled on the long-standing practices of farmers disposing of livestock remains.

Spade, who finished the master’s program in 2013, said UMass professors Max Page and Katherine Lugosch spent many hours with her, “considering the ritual of transforming the dead into soil.”

“It’s not every architecture program that will encourage such ‘out of the box’ thinking!” Spade wrote.

Page said Thursday that Spade had designed a prototype as part of her master’s project while at UMass.

“She was just a real star student who took on this incredibly huge, deeply important universal issue and did an incredibly beautiful project that combined the architectural thinking along with the scientific research,” Page said.

Spade and Recompose helped spearhead the effort to get Washington’s new law passed, and they are now working to lease a property in Seattle for what they’re billing as the world’s first ever facility to offer such a service to the public.

Recompose describes its process as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains into soil.” And advocates say the process is a greener alternative to other methods like cremation, for example, which releases more than 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide every year in the United States alone.

Bodies would be placed in sleek steel containers with materials like wood chips and straw, and microbes could break down the remains in the course of a month, turning them into soil to be returned to the deceased’s loved ones

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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