Choice or dignity? Human composting bill passes House over 'creepy' and 'callous' claims

Wheeler Cowperthwaite
Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE − After a half hour debate about the "creepy" prospect of allowing people to have their bodies composted, instead of cremated or buried, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved the practice Tuesday, but the bill still needs to go to the Senate.

The bill, H7212, would allow for people to have their bodies composted, under a set of rules created by the Department of Health. , where un-embalmed bodies are buried by themselves, are already allowed in Rhode Island, as well as burials in caskets (with and without embalming) and cremation.

While the General Assembly is set to adjourn on Thursday, the "natural organic reduction" bill has not been scheduled for a Senate vote.

Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, said the issue is "visceral" and that constituents will complain that the legislature took time to consider a bill to allow people to choose how their bodies are dealt with, a trivial matter, compared to more important issues like the Washington Bridge failure, infrastructure problems and the housing crisis, and that it would be divisive.

Other bills heard on Tuesday in the House, on the consent calendar, included a change to allow for the harvesting of blue crabs at night, the renaming of an intersection in West Warwick to "," to allow Hopkinton to increase the fines for the violation of dog ordinances and to allow people to share the road kill they hit.

"On the other end, the darker side, where I reside, that is where you can't shake the nagging image, the feeling, the part and parcel of continuation of disrespect for life, the continuation of the culture of death and callousness, we see permeating through the country," Corvese said.

Recompose, a Seattle-based company, demonstrates the human composting process. Over 30 days, the body and plant material form nutrient-dense soil.

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, shot back that she was "one of them" and that there was no need to make the issue divisive.

"This is not something that's being thrust upon anyone, this is the way we as individuals will be choosing how we return to the earth," Tanzi said.

Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, said human remains aren't refuse and should be treated with "respect after death" and that allowing people to choose to be composted was roughly equivalent to treating human remains as trash.

One staunch advocate, Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, D-Warwick, said what's more offensive than allowing bodies to be composted is the state "moving" a burial ground by removing the headstones and then building highways over the graves, noting there is "something beautiful" about composted remains helping a forest grow.

"Talk about a tree of life," she said.

Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, D-Cranston, said she thought the prospect "still creeps me out."

Where else is organic natural reduction allowed?

Last year, bill sponsor , D-Portsmouth, said she introduced the bill to start a conversation and this year reintroduced it with a few tweaks requested by the state Department of Health, which supports the bill.

Seven states have legalized the practice: Washington, Colorado, Oregon, New York, Vermont and . California has legalized it as well, but it will not be allowed to begin until 2027.

What is natural organic reduction?

Natural organic reduction is a nice way of saying a body is quickly decomposed, a process usually aided by high temperatures.

One of the handful of businesses to offer the process,  in Auburn, Washington, started a year ago. Its process takes about 30 days, leaving behind a cubic yard of rich soil and some bones that are ground into powder, just like with cremation, spokeswoman Haley Morris said in 2023.

How do religions view natural organic reduction?

The Catholic Church relaxed its prohibition against cremation in 1963 but also maintained it has an "" toward the practice, favoring burial, while , as .

"," where a body is left in an elevated location exposed to the elements – and scavengers – is a Buddhist practice and a , while cremation is generally a .

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Reach reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite at wcowperthwaite@providencejournal.com or follow him on Twitter