In summers to come, as Delawareans find themselves wandering through the state’s natural wonders, they could be walking upon grounds composed of an unusual substance: human remains.
On April 15, House Bill 165, also known as “An Act to Amend the Delaware Code Relating to Human Remains,” was introduced and assigned to the Health & Human Development Committee in the House of Representatives.
Supported by primary sponsor Rep. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, alongside Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark; Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover; and others, the bill presents those wishing for their final resting place to be environmentally safe the option of having their bodies turned into soil.
The process of natural organic reduction, or human composting, involves human remains breaking down to be reused as soil.
New to the funerary field, the process of natural organic reduction is one of many sustainable alternatives to a traditional burial or cremation.
Environmentally friendly alternatives, also known as “green burials,” are on the rise in the U.S., with about 54% of citizens considering one and about 72% of cemeteries nationwide seeing an increase in demand in these methods, according to a survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2018.
Like other green funerary methods, which include biodegradable coffins, burial without caskets or “mushroom suits” — organic clothes comprised of cotton material and sewn-in mushroom spores designed for body decomposition — as Rep. Eric Morrison, D-Glasgow, explained, human composting combats the number of pollutants and toxins emitted into the atmosphere during embalming, cremation and decomposition processes.
“Many people are looking for alternatives to traditional burial and cremation — especially environmentally friendly alternatives,” said Rep. Morrison, a co-sponsor of the bill. “This process reduces human remains to a natural organic compound, (and) unlike cremation, the mulching process releases no carbon dioxide or mercury into the air and uses one-eighth the energy used in the cremation process.”
If passed, human composting will be used as soil alongside other common materials, such as food scraps and other nontoxic, biodegradable items. As stated in the proposed bill, the process itself will involve placing a body into a large cylindrical tank containing bacteria, wood chips, straw and other natural substances for about 30 days.
When exposed and mixed with warm air, and upon periodic turns, the blend of organic materials and human remains will then be reduced into a soillike substance that can be given to the family or friends of the deceased or could be used to conserve surrounding forests or gardens.
If surviving families choose to donate the remains after the process is complete, they must submit a proposal to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control outlining their exact intentions, keeping proper composting requirements in mind.
For those campaigning for the bill’s passage, having human composting as an eco-friendly option alongside a customary burial or cremation will present a wider range of choices for those planning their last wishes.
In 2019, Washington became the first state to make human composting legal, allowing individuals choices between being buried, cremated or having their bodies turned into soil.
On May 10, Colorado became the second state to legalize human composting, while others, including California, New York and Oregon, are also considering similar bills.
As Delaware strives to reduce its collective carbon footprint and adopt more eco-friendly political initiatives, many supporters of HB 165 are confident in its passage.
“I hope that this legislation passes, and I think it will,” Rep. Morrison said. “To me, it is commonsense legislation because it adds benefits for Delawareans and poses no risks. I believe that Delawareans deserve as many options as possible for disposing of human remains, especially environmentally friendly ones.”
With the bill not yet discussed in committee and the General Assembly session ending June 30, Rep. Bennett said in a statement that she “will be meeting with the (state Board of Funeral Services) and attempting to address their concerns before running the bill,” with the intention to “have those concerns worked out prior to running it.” She said she does not intend to work any further on the legislation this session.
“I would not be surprised if this takes more than a year to pass, as it is an issue that has only developed recently, and it often takes time for residents and legislators to become familiar with such new concepts,” said Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, another co-sponsor of the legislation. “I would expect that this would not change funeral homes’ business and that crematoriums may consider expanding their operations to offer this option and, by doing so, strive to continue to maintain their level of business.”
Supporters also argue that funeral homes, crematoriums and other related businesses across the state could also benefit from the passage of the bill, as offering the human composting and mulching processes could lead to more people taking advantage of this recourse.
However, as with Parsell Funeral Home & Crematorium in Lewes, there are some funerary businesses leery of how necessary the bill is due to the newness of these processes and how much it would financially affect residents.
“We believe that (the bill) is a little bit premature and somewhat narrow,” said Andrew T. Parsell, a licensed Delaware funeral director and vice president of Parsell Funeral Home & Crematorium. “There’s a lot of alternative methods of decomposition, and we believe that all methods ... should be considered when looking to change laws to allow for different offerings.
“You need to consider the demand from the public in Delaware for those different offerings because when undertaking and creating new laws and regulations, it costs the taxpayers a ton of money to do so,” Mr. Parsell added. “You want to make sure that (the bill) is all-inclusive and that it represents a population that’s actually wanting that.”
There is also debate surrounding whether those voting would choose this option for themselves, but, as Rep. Morrison stated, “that is no reason to deny the option to others.”