PROVIDENCE — “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
That familiar phrase is found in an order for the burial of the dead. But a new phrase might soon be in order: dirt to dirt.
Representative Michelle E. McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat, has proposed legislation to allow the natural organic reduction of dead bodies — better known as human composting — as an alternative to cremation or burial.
“For people who have respected the earth and tried to lighten their impact on it in life, it makes sense to also want to take the greenest, most environmentally beneficial route in death,” McGaw said. “This is an option that we should work to make available here in Rhode Island, for our people and for our planet.”
Human composting aims to reduce the impact on the earth, McGaw said, noting that burial involves occupying land and paying for things such as caskets, grave liners, and gravestones. And she said cremation requires the burning of fossil fuel, pouring an average of 534 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere for each cremation — the equivalent of driving a car 500 miles.
McGaw said she has constituents who want to have this option, so she introduced the bill to “start the conversation” about the idea. No companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.
Washington became the first state to legalize the practice in 2019. And in December, New York became the sixth state to legalize natural organic reduction, joining Colorado, Oregon, California, and Vermont.
In Massachusetts, legislators introduced a 2021 bill aiming to amend the definition of cremation to include human composting, as well as alkaline hydrolysis: the process of dissolving bodies in water. The Legislature did not pass the proposal, but lawmakers plan to reintroduce the bill again.
McGaw explained that dead bodies are placed inside vessels, which are kept inside, along with organic matter that helps speed the natural decomposition process. A chamber keeps the vessels between 130 to 160 degrees, and the contents are blended regularly over the course of four to seven weeks.
The result is about a cubic yard of nutrient-dense soil.
The legislation calls for that soil to be scattered in a cemetery in a designated garden or area; placed in a grave, crypt or niche; or retrieved by the family of the deceased.
The legislation would establish rules for the creation and operation of natural organic reduction facilities in Rhode Island, and the facilities would be licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health.
McGaw said she realizes that matters concerning death make some people uncomfortable. But she said others will find comfort “in the prospect of going to their final resting place as part of the earth, helping to support life in the future.”