Vermont bill would allow composting of human remains



Published: 02-01-2022 3:28 PM

A bill in the Vermont House would allow for a new alternative to cremation or burial — converting human remains into compost.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said experiences on her farm sparked her interest. She and her husband raise sheep, and if one dies, they bury it in the manure pile to decompose.

“And it occurred to me that that would be what I’d like to have happen to my own self when I meet my demise,” Partridge said, then joked, “and because I think my husband would get in trouble for burying me in the manure pile.”

In 2019, Washington became the first state to explicitly legalize the composting of human remains, a process often referred to as “natural organic reduction.” Oregon and Colorado followed suit in 2021. Vermont’s bill, HB 244, was introduced last session but did not proceed through the Legislature.

Composting takes about 30 days, said Kate Stephenson, a Montpelier-based consultant for Recompose, one of a handful of businesses that provide natural organic reduction in Washington. Recompose places the body in a steel container with wood chips and alfalfa, Stephenson said, and the naturally occurring microbes cause the body to break down fairly quickly. They test the soil for pathogens before returning it to families, she said.

Each body creates about a cubic yard of compost, Stephenson said. Most families opt to take a portion of it home, often to plant a bush or tree in the backyard, and donate the rest, which Recompose sends to a conservation forest in southern Washington.

Those who advocate for natural organic reduction tout its lower environmental impact, compared with a conventional burial or cremation. They point out that a traditional burial puts significant amounts of concrete, wood and often embalming chemicals into the ground while taking up valuable land space.

Each year, U.S. cemeteries bury 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 64,500 tons of steel, according to the advocacy group Green Burial Council.

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On average, each cremation emits about 535 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to reporting by National Geographic in 2019.

Some funeral providers in Vermont also offer alkaline hydrolysis, often called “water cremation” or “aquamation,” which dissolves everything but the bones. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was recently aquamated.

Patrick Healy, president of the Vermont Cemetery Association, voiced his support of the bill last week at a meeting of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.

More and more people are factoring environmental impact into their end-of-life plans, said Healy, who is also the director of Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier. When he first started working at Green Mount 35 years ago, cremation was relatively rare, used only about 5% to 10% of the time, he said.

Vermont now has the country’s eighth-highest rate of cremation, according to 2019 data from the Cremation Association of North America, with about 73% of deaths resulting in cremation. Nationwide, the group estimates about 55% of deaths result in cremation.

Over the past five to eight years, many people who otherwise would choose cremation have opted for a “green burial,” Healy said. That generally means a simple pine casket or shroud buried at a shallower depth for better decomposition.

This has created an odd kind of trend cycle. A concrete vault, used in conventional burials today, has only been common in the years after World War II, Healy said, which was likely influenced by the need to bury more bodies on smaller amounts of land. Concrete vaults can be stacked in the ground, but that is harder to do with wooden caskets.

Space is also a concern for Vermont cemeteries today, Healy said. Cemeteries generally should plan how much space they need 50 to 100 years in the future, he said.

“I would say that most cemeteries do not have enough room or space to last that long,” Healy said. “It’s kind of a quiet issue right now, I think. I think people are just not dealing with it.”