Recent technological innovations have changed the nature of death, researchers said during a Feb. 16 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Seattle.
One of the developments discussed — a new method of composting human remains — has the potential to become an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional funerary options. The others — the possibility of storing genetic and digital information indefinitely — are more ominous and require consideration by citizens, corporations and policymakers, the panelists said.
Beginning in May 2020, Washington will become the first state to legalize a process called natural organic reduction, whereby a body, mixed with plant material at high heat, breaks down into compost. Though farmers have long composted livestock carcasses following routine deaths and large-scale epidemics, the procedure’s effectiveness at breaking down human remains was only theoretical when the law was passed in May 2019.
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University, discussed a study that she and her colleagues plan to publish this spring. Using six donor bodies and a pilot vessel on WSU’s Pullman campus, the researchers became the first to test natural organic reduction on humans.
“It’s highly effective,” said Carpenter-Boggs. “But it has taken some thought and some redesign to make this a process that could be allowable and acceptable for human use.”
Within four to seven weeks, each of the bodies in the study degraded into a skeleton, with some bone having decomposed. Commercial facilities — the first of which, a south Seattle public-benefit corporation called , is set to open in the coming year — would likely pulverize bones before they begin to decay, a practice that is common in cremation. Thus, such facilities could potentially compost a body in less than a month.
Like the exact turnaround time, the environmental impact of the nascent commercial industry and the price that facilities will offer clients remain to be seen. While the operation will require electricity for mixing, heating and aeration, it will avoid the embalming chemicals used in most burials and produce 1.5 to 2 cubic meters of carbon-sequestering compost, likely making it more environmentally friendly than current funerary options. The price will fall somewhere between that of cremation and burial, which average approximately $1,500 and $8,000, respectively.
With the legalization of natural organic reduction under consideration by lawmakers in Colorado and California and Carpenter-Boggs having been contacted by legislators in the Netherlands and South Korea, Washington will serve as a testing ground for the procedure.
During the briefing, Malia Fullerton, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, discussed the recent proliferation of biobanks as indefinite repositories of DNA. Both in research settings and in direct-to-consumer genetic testing, the establishment of what happens to people’s biological specimens after their death is legally “very unclear,” she said.
“We need to start thinking about these practices now,” said Fullerton. “Our genetic information can be basically commodified and continue to create and generate a commercial product long after we are gone. I think it’s something people should be cognizant about.”
Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, spoke about his research into what he sees as “design flaws” in the digital platforms that are ubiquitous in modern life. Many do not directly address what happens to users’ data after they die, while others fail to make user-afterlife policies accessible by translating them from English into other languages.
“One of the very few things which is certain is we are going to die,” said Hussain. “When we are designing things, we need to better think about that.”