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WTF: Why Can't Vermonters Be Composted When They Die?

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An artist's rendering of future recompose facility with vessels - COURTESY OF  MOLT STUDIOS
  • Courtesy Of Molt Studios
  • An artist's rendering of future recompose facility with vessels

Vermont is still weeks away from the official start of spring and even further from the growing season. But there's one "crop" that Vermonters plant every spring without fail, as soon as the ground thaws: human remains.

In 2016, 5,908 people died in the Green Mountain State, according to statistics from the Vermont Department of Health. Based on Vermont's cremation rate of 70 percent — and omitting the tiny number of Vermonters who may have donated their bodies to science or been placed in cryonic suspension — it's safe to assume that the remaining 30 percent, or 1,773 bodies, were interred in the earth or a mausoleum.

But, as one Seven Days reader asked recently, why can't Vermonters dispose of their dead more ecologically — by composting them?

Vermonters are certainly keen on composting. Act 148, signed into law in 2012, made this the first state to mandate it for everyone. By July 1, 2020, all food scraps generated statewide will have to be separated from landfilled trash.

Similarly, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets encourages farmers to compost their dead livestock. It seems logical that those of us who sit atop the food chain should return to the bottom of it, too. Why can't Vermont's back-to-the-landers go back to the land as fertilizer?

Short answer: because state law restricts the disposition of human remains to burial or cremation.

Neither process is particularly eco-friendly. Conventional burial takes valuable real estate out of public use, buries tons of precious resources — steel, copper, bronze, concrete — and dumps thousands of gallons of embalming fluid, pesticides and chemical fertilizers into the ground. Though more economical, cremation consumes enormous quantities of fossil fuels and releases greenhouse gases, mercury and other pollution into the air.

But one state is now considering human composting as a more sustainable alternative. The Washington State Legislature is mulling over two bills that would make it the first to permit "recomposition," aka rapid composting, of the dead.

Behind that effort is a Washington-based public benefit corporation called Recompose. According to the company's website, it was founded in 2017 by Katrina Spade, a New Hampshire native who studied sustainable design at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield. Disturbed by the environmental impacts of burial and cremation, Spade launched the Urban Death Project in 2014 to find a kinder way to kick the bucket.

After years of research, she devised a method called "natural organic reduction" that "gently convert[s] human remains into soil ... so that we can nourish new life after we die." In this method, yet to be legalized, bodies are placed inside reusable, hexagonal composters called "recomposition vessels." The process, which takes about a month, breaks down the entire body, including nails, teeth and bones. Later, family members could take home their loamy loved ones or spread them in on-site gardens.

How receptive might Vermonters be to — pardon the expression — soiling themselves? Michelle Acciavatti is an end-of-life specialist at Ending Well in Montpelier and cofounder of the nonprofit group Green Burial Vermont, which advocates for more environmentally sound post-demise practices.

Vermont has already come a long way, she said. In 2015, green burial activists helped change Vermont's definition of burial grounds. Before then, cemeteries had to be fenced and maintained to certain landscaping standards; graves had to be marked with headstones. 2015's green burial law eliminated those requirements and allowed cemeteries to designate "natural burial grounds" that are managed more ecologically. There, bodies return to the ground without coffins, burial vaults or embalming fluids.

In 2017, a second green burial law reduced the state's mandatory minimum burial depth from 5 to 3.5 feet. The goal, Acciavatti explained, is to place the body closer to the active layers of soil where bacteria, insects, heat, oxygen and plant roots can break it down more quickly and repurpose its nutrients.

Vermont already has one such green burial site, at Meeting House Hill Cemetery in West Brattleboro. Others are under development in North Hero's Hazen West View Cemetery and Calais' town cemetery.

Acciavatti, who's been following the Washington State legislation closely, sees human composting as the natural next step in green burial. As she put it, "It opens the door to giving people as many options as possible."

In Washington, she noted, the push to compost the deceased was driven in part by the dearth of cemetery space in urban areas. While that may not seem like a problem in Vermont, Acciavatti pointed out that many of the state's cemeteries are filling up quickly, and Vermont has some of the nation's strictest guidelines for opening new ones.

As for composting the dead, she predicted that people will need time to acclimate to the idea. Even with green burial sites, which don't alter the character of the landscape, the absence of headstones and grave markers still makes some people squeamish.

"In our current death-denying culture, the idea that there's going to be dead bodies on land we use ... is a bit of a challenging idea for some people," Acciavatti said.

Taking it one step further and using human-remains-derived compost to grow food may seem too Soylent Green to many Vermonters. Acciavatti suggested starting small by using it to grow silage. Perhaps a corpse-compost cannabis crop called Old Granddad would catch on sooner than heirloom tomatoes grown for his heirs.

Some Vermonters already appear to be OK with eating cycle-of-life comestibles. Acciavatti recounted the story of one woman she met whose husband died and was buried on the couple's property. Later, the woman planted a blueberry bush on his grave.

"She's got a great sense of humor about it," Acciavatti said. "She goes out now and harvests the blueberries [and says], 'It's like a little gift from him to me every summer.'"

Correction, February 27, 2019: An earlier version of this story misidentified the nonprofit Green Burial Vermont.
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