Would You Compost Your Loved Ones? after Processing Dead Livestock for Years, WSU Professor Seeks OK for Pilot Study of Composting Human Remains

By White, Rebecca; Afiq Hisham Murrow News Service | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), November 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

Would You Compost Your Loved Ones? after Processing Dead Livestock for Years, WSU Professor Seeks OK for Pilot Study of Composting Human Remains


White, Rebecca, Afiq Hisham Murrow News Service, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


A chain link fence, a biohazard warning sign and barbed wire separate the public from Washington State University's body composting facility. Inside, rows of material are made up of piles of bark, composted organic materials and decomposing livestock remains.

Currently, only animals are buried in the facility, but it could soon be a destination for the remains of people who donate their bodies to science.

"That will require not only showing that it works," said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, an associate professor of Crop and Soil Sciences, "but that people will want it and that it can be done in an urban-suburban setting."

Carpenter-Boggs has partnered with a Seattle group to seek approval to begin a pilot study on composting human bodies. She has studied livestock composting for years.

"It's a very strange thing because it works great," Carpenter-Boggs said, "but nobody who doesn't have to likes to talk about it because there's almost an instant yuck factor."

Carpenter-Boggs said finding a burial plot is almost impossible in urban areas such as King County, so cremation is often the only option for families burying a loved one.

"There are increasingly places where it doesn't even matter if you have a lot of money," she said. "You can't be buried. You have to go somewhere else."

In addition to concerns about space, the chemicals used to embalm bodies can have environmental consequences. Today, about 75 percent of people in Washington choose cremation, but that also has environmental impacts.

Carpenter-Boggs said farmers commonly dispose of dead livestock by composting it as they would other waste, and they are encouraged to do so by the state Departments of Agriculture and Ecology.

Carpenter-Boggs has researched composting for several years and is active in Recompose, a Seattle-based corporation researching environmentally friendly burial options.

Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, said she approached Carpenter-Boggs four years ago after discovering her research on livestock composting.

"I had the concept before I spoke with her," Spade said, " but I knew that she would be potentially a source of information and had research expertise around it."

If Carpenter-Boggs gets her study past a WSU ethics committee that reviews animal and human-based research, she can begin work on a pilot study. Last summer, she applied for permits to modify the university's existing in-vessel composting facility, updating the air filtration system to contain any odors the decomposition may create. It sits at the end of Dairy Road on the WSU campus in Pullman. …

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