California Is Considering Legalizing Composting the Dead

A bill introduced by a local legislator could give folks in the Golden State a greener alternative to burial or cremation
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In California it could soon be legal for people to be transformed into soil after death via an alternative funerary option known as human composting.

A bill making its way through the legislature, AB 501, would legalize “natural organic reduction” (NOR), or the composting of human remains, providing a greener choice for Californians. Currently, the only three funerary options are burial, cremation by fire, and cremation by water.

“With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere,” says Democratic assembly member Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, who reintroduced the bill in February. It’s her second attempt at getting the bill passed.

The NOR process, which was developed by Recompose co-founder and CEO Katrina Spade, involves placing bodies into individual vessels and fostering “gentle transformation” into a nutrient-dense soil that can then be returned to families or donated to approved conservation land. For each individual who chooses the NOR method over conventional burial or cremation, the process saves the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon from entering the environment.

“The result is completely safe and avoids painful, unnecessary financial hardships on families when laying to rest a loved one,” officials said in a news release.

Multiple Western states have already legalized the NOR process, including Washington, which became the first to adopt the method in 2019, plus Oregon and Colorado. Massachusetts and Delaware also have bills in the works, says Anna Swenson, a representative for Recompose.

 

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This bill, which would go into effect by July 2023, comes at a time when conversations about green death care alternatives are growing. Amid the height of COVID-19 deaths earlier this year, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors air pollution for multiple California counties, issued an emergency order to suspend limits on cremations because the pandemic caused a backlog.

“This is another sad reminder that we must legalize a more environmentally friendly option as soon as possible,” Garcia says in a news release.

So far the bill has received support from multiple organizations, including Californians Against Waste and the Northern California Recycling Association; there’s also a form letter on Recompose’s site that California residents can use to voice their support for the measure. In a letter dated June 15, the California Catholic Conference came out in opposition of NOR burials, saying, “These methods of disposal were used to lessen the possibility of disease being transmitted by the dead carcass. Using these same methods for the ‘transformation’ of human remains can create an unfortunate spiritual, emotional, and psychological distancing from the deceased.” Garcia’s office says the CCC has since indicated it will remain neutral on the matter.

A Senate Appropriations Committee hearing for AB 501 is scheduled for August 16. If the bill moves beyond the committee’s suspense file, the measure will then head to the Senate floor for a vote.


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