New form of Disposition in Washington will go into effect May 2020

In speaking with Richard Peterson, Director of Cemeteries Archdiocese of Seattle, he gave some points to ponder when reading about these new Disposition Laws that have gone or will go into effect in Washington, and possibly other states in the future.

  1. How will the funeral rites of the Church be affected?
  2. Burial of human remains: Will people bring the composted material to a cemetery for burial?
  3. Will there still be permanent memorialization?

Below are two articles on these topics for you to read and consider.

Human Composting Bill Signed by Washington Governor

May 22, 2019 | By Washington State Catholic Conference

Governor Inslee signed the Human Composting bill into law on Tuesday, May 21, making Washington the first state where this practice is legal.  This presents a good opportunity for the WSCC to remind Catholics of the Church’s strong recommendations on the treatment of the bodies of the deceased.

The Catholic Church strongly recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries and other sacred places.  In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to reflect faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.  The practice of burying bodies of the deceased shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.

While cremation is not prohibited for Catholics, it can only be chosen for reasons that are consistent with Christian doctrine.  The resultant ashes must be treated with the same respect as bodies destined for burial.  Keeping the ashes of the deceased in one’s home, scattering the ashes, or preserving them in mementos (e.g.; jewelry) is not permitted.

The WSCC has reviewed both alkaline hydrolysis and recomposition practices.  This research leads us to call upon the legislature to further study these emerging technologies to assure that public health and the environment are protected.  Specific to alkaline hydrolysis, which uses lye, the state should study the environmental impact of its widespread use and whether municipal water systems can adequately treat this increased volume of liquid effluent.

As for recomposition, the very limited research has yet to be completely peer reviewed.  Furthermore, it appears that the process is not able to safely process certain pathogens such as the bacteria that causes anthrax.  The bill signed by the Governor contained no screening protocol to prevent the bodies of those who have died from similar diseases from releasing pathogens into the environment.

In addition to these concerns, the WSCC expressed concerns that the legislation failed to ensure that the emerging technologies show sufficient respect for the deceased body.  Alkaline hydrolysis destroys bodily remains by dissolving them with chemicals.  The bill allowed the resulting material to be used as ordinary compost.  The Catholic Church believes that disposing of human remains in such manner fails to show enough respect for the body of the deceased.

Washington’s Human Composing Law

— Camille Pauley, President, Healing the Culture

Recently, Washington became the first state in the nation to allow people to compost the bodies of their deceased loved ones. Positioned as an earth-friendly alternative to cremation or burial, “natural organic reduction” involves mixing up a human corpse with substances like wood chips and straw to produce a compostable soil that can be used for anything from farming, to gardening, landscaping, playgrounds, and even doggy potty parks.

Another form of disposition also approved by the Washington State legislature in the same bill is a process called Alkaline Hydrolysis, making Washington one of dozens of states to legalize it. This process is marketed in some states as “green cremation” or “aquamation.” In essence, the human body is placed into a large vessel that contains water and lye (and perhaps additional chemicals). Depending on the machine, the water is either heated, heated with pressure, or simply uses pressure to liquefy the human remains. This liquid is then disposed of into the public sewer system. The leftover bone fragments are collected for the family to do with as they wish.

Some years ago, Swedish biologists attempted to advance another form of disposition named “promession,” in which the body would be frozen in liquid nitrogen, violently shaken into a powder, and then scattered as mulch.

For many who are eco-conscious or who perhaps find themselves attracted to the idea that the bodies of their loved ones can be used for practical and community-beautifying purposes after they die, these forms of disposition may seem like acceptable and even altruistic options. But for anyone who affirms the transcendent and elevated nature of the human person, they must must be exposed for the abuses and sacrileges they truly are.

Recall that Christians hold that human beings are more than our physical parts — we also have souls. Recall also that the body is not just a shell inhabited by a soul. The human body is an integral part of our nature, united with the soul to create a whole and integrated person. We are unique and distinct in creation from both animals (bodies without rational souls) and angels (spirits without physical bodies).

Precisely because of our unique nature, human beings are called to a higher purpose than plants and animals. During life, the body is meant to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. The human body gives physical reality to the mystery of God’s self-sacrificial and unconditional love — for example, through the sacraments of Matrimony, Holy Orders, and spiritual and bodily union with Christ in the Eucharist. Further, our ultimate end is realized through the very real and actual resurrection of our physical bodies in the last days.

Reducing a human being’s deceased body to something akin to cow fertilizer or sewage degrades and even denies the purpose and meaning of the body in life, and discourages our hope for bodily resurrection after death.

It is important to note that artificially reducing the deceased human body to compostable soil, powder, or sewage is not comparable to cremation. The option of cremation, though not preferred to bodily burial, is allowed in Christian teaching when it is necessary in certain specified situations. In these special cases, the expectation is that the Christian loved ones will treat the cremated remains with the same respect due to uncremated remains — by either burying or reserving the remains in a consecrated place. Alternative “green” forms of disposition treat the human body as an object to be used for a base purpose, rather than honoring and revering it as a sacred temple that will one day be resurrected.