During the estate planning process, one of the most difficult decisions for our clients is deciding what to do with their body after death. Thankfully, Washington law is progressive and now offers many options for consumers: Burial, Cremation, Composting, and Liquification.
BURIAL, CREMATION, COMPOSTING AND LIQUIFICATION
The most common methods for disposing of a body in Washington State are:
1. Full body burial in a cemetery;
2. Cremation and placement of the ashes in a cemetery or urn or dispersed in a natural setting.
However, a recent change in Washington law now allows bodies to also be processed by composting (‘natural organic reduction’) or liquification (‘alkaline hydrolysis’).
In Washington State, the governing law can be found in the Revised Code of Washington RCW 68.50.110, which specifies that bodily remains, “must be decently buried, undergo cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, or natural organic reduction within a reasonable time after death.”
Burial and cremation by fire are the most common options.. However, alkaline hydrolysis, and natural organic reduction which is often called “composting” are becoming popular and more funeral service providers are now offering these services.
What Is Alkaline Hydrolysis?
This process is referred to by many names including the use of the terms: bio-cremation, resomation, flameless cremation, water cremation and aquamation. However, these different terms refer to the same process of reducing “human remains to bone fragments and essential elements in a licensed hydrolysis facility using heat, pressure, water, and base chemical agents.” RCW 68.04.290.
The process is completed within a few days. A significant benefit is that there is less environmental impact caused by the alkaline hydrolysis reduction process than by flame cremation. There are no direct emissions of greenhouse gases or metals into the environment, and the process typically uses less than half the energy compared to a flame cremation. The cost for this process is advertised in Washington State at approximately $1,500 which is similar to the cost of flame cremation.
Composting Your Remains
Natural organic reduction is often referred to as “human composting” or sometimes as “terramation.” Remains are placed into individual containers and allowed to decompose using the body’s natural microbes. The completed process results in approximately one cubic yard of material which can be used as a soil amendment to plant a memorial tree or to help with reforestation efforts on local forest lands.
The compost process takes one to two months and costs more than alkaline hydrolysis with some advertised prices reaching $7,000. Again, the environmental impact compared to both burial and flame cremation are significantly less, and the resulting soil amendment can help reforest local habitats or grow memorial gardens.
ORGAN DONATION, GREEN BURIALS, THE WILLED BODY PROGRAM
Clients have three other options for disposing of their remains after death: organ donation, “green” burials, and the University of Washington Willed Body Program and Washington State University.
Organ donation should be familiar to most Washington drivers, as they can elect to donate their organs when applying for their driver’s license that will automatically place their name on Washington’s organ donor registry. If a person does not want to make this election on their driver’s license, they can also register at Donate Life Washington (https://www.donatelifewa.org/). If a donor changes their mind and does not want to be an organ donor, they must notify the State of Washington to revoke the prior authorization. After your organs have been donated then the remains can be buried, cremated, composted or liquified.
Green Burials in Natural Burial Grounds
Green, eco-friendly, and natural burials return bodies to the natural elements without human hinderance or acceleration. Typically, a person will locate and pre-pay for a burial site at a natural burial ground, such as the non-profit organization, White Eagle Memorial Preserve, in Goldendale, Washington. The deceased’s body is not embalmed and will be covered in a biodegradable shroud or casket and buried in a three- to four-foot-deep grave. The cost is about $3500. Natural burial grounds are usually located in more remote locations which could make visiting the gravesite more difficult for family members and friends to pay their respects.
The Willed Body Program – University of Washington and Washington State University
If you are interested in educating future health providers, the University of Washington (UW) has its Willed Body Program. (https://www.uwmedicine.org/school-of-medicine/about/willed-body-program). Washington State University has a similar program as well. (https://medicine.wsu.edu/give/willed-body-program).
Interested donors must complete a downloadable registration form and submit it to the Program prior to their death. Then upon a donor’s passing, the Program must be notified immediately to preserve the donor’s remains for Program usage. The UW will pay the transportation costs of remains located in Washington State to its facilities. At the conclusion of work the UW will cremate the remains at no cost to the donor’s estate. The Program will either bury the cremated remains or return the cremated remains to the donor’s agent. The UW reserves the right to reject any donated bodies. If enrolling in the Willed Body Program, a donor should also select an alternative for body disposal in the event the Program does not accept the body.
Unfortunately, a person cannot enroll as an organ donor and a Willed Body Program donor. The donor must choose which procedure they want to use and cannot use both.
Washington residents have several new options such as alkaline hydrolysis, and natural organic reduction, for the disposition of their remains. Each of the new options cause less negative environmental impacts, but costs and processing times may pose an obstacle to some people. Traditional burials vary in cost but can be accomplished quickly. Cremations by fire can also be accomplished quickly and usually is the lowest cost of all the options.
Finally, there are many public interest benefits that come from using our state’s organ donation program and our two state universities’ Willed Body Program. Let us know if you have questions about these issues and if you want to include one of these options in your estate plan. Contact one of our experienced and knowledgeable Estate Planning attorneys to learn more.