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Human Composting for ‘Green’ Burials Closer to Law in New York

June 3, 2022, 2:26 PM

New Yorkers could soon have another burial option: being converted into soil.

The state Legislature passed a bill (S.5535/A.382) allowing for human composting. It would allow facilities to use natural organic reduction, which accelerates the process of biological decomposition in an above-ground container and transforms human remains into soil, according to the bill language.

The method is environmentally sustainable and a cost-effective alternative to cremation and burial, according to the legislation. Washington State legalized natural organic reduction in 2019, and Oregon and Colorado passed similar bills last year.

The state Senate passed the bill in a 61-2 vote early Friday morning, and the Assembly passed it 98-52 on Wednesday. If Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signs it, the measure would take effect 90 days later.

The New York State Catholic Conference opposed the measure, saying it subverts the idea that the human body should be treated with dignity and respect.

“While not everyone shares the same beliefs with regard to the reverent and respectful treatment of human remains, we believe there are a great many New Yorkers who would be uncomfortable at best with this proposed composting/fertilizing method, which is more appropriate for vegetable trimmings and eggshells than for human bodies,” the group said in a statement.

Greener Burials

Human composting is an eco-friendly alternative to cemeteries, which take up land, and spare resources such as wood, concrete, and steel used in casket construction, according to an Environmental Advocates of New York bill memo.

Traditional burials also can lead to soil and groundwater pollution from the embalming process, which uses toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, the advocacy group noted.

“Cremation is not much better for the environment, as 28 gallons of fuel are required for a single cremation, releasing 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, along with other dangerous chemicals like monoxide and mercury,” the group said in the memo.

Human composting places remains in a specifically designed vessel with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, the group says. Over a period of weeks, microbes, and oxygen convert the remains into soil.

Recompose, a Washington state-based company that offers natural organic reduction, estimates that human composting saves a metric ton of carbon dioxide, compared with burial or cremation.

Reducing Carbon Footprints

New York’s human composting legislation comes as the state aims to lower carbon emissions and combat climate change.

Under legislation passed in 2019, the state plans to get all its electricity from emission-free sources by 2040 and achieve an 85% reduction in economywide emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

Natural organic reduction facilities would have to follow the same standards as crematories, according to the proposed legislation. They couldn’t co-mingle remains and would have to follow the same privacy protections, certification and identification standards as crematories.

If the remains that have gone through natural organic reduction aren’t collected by a family, for example, they can be scattered in a designated garden or area, or in a grave, a crypt, or another place designated by an authorized cemetery corporation, according to the bill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Keshia Clukey in Albany, N.Y. at kclukey@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com