Episode 83 Transcript: A NEW KIND OF COMPOST
CLARICE: Hello, everybody. And welcome to this week’s episode of Environmentally Speaking.
MARISA: Hi, everybody. I’m Marisa Desautel, an environmental attorney here in Rhode Island.
CLARICE: And I’m Clarice asking you, what are you going to do at the end of your days?
MARISA: Days plural.
MARISA: Nice segue into our topic.
CLARICE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
MARISA: Today we are talking about —
CLARICE: Composting of the last variety.
MARISA: I — okay. I —
CLARICE: I’m so excited.
MARISA: I am, too, and I had a whole thing that I was going to go into, but you just hijacked the hell out of it.
MARISA: Today we’re talking about a proposed bill in the state of Rhode Island that is under consideration in the House, on the House side of things. It is known as House Bill Number 6045 and it relates to funeral director, slash, embalmer and funeral service establishments. The reason that this proposed bill is being cited under that particular chapter of Rhode Island law is because it is proposing to amend existing funeral service-type statute to include natural organic reduction.
CLARICE: That’s so polite.
MARISA: Or as Clarice says it, your end of days.
CLARICE: Yes. Oh, I was going to say so basically it is adding an option. And when post people think about funerary plannings, we think of the two most common options, burial, cremation. They’re adding a third option of composting.
MARISA: For humans.
CLARICE: For humans.
MARISA: What do you think about this?
CLARICE: It’s kind of cool.
MARISA: I would totally do it. In fact, I previously saw some kind of — it was a print advertisement or some kind of marketing material where you could put your body in a —
CLARICE: Is this for the tree pod?
MARISA: — biodegradable bag and become a tree.
MARISA: I’m all for that.
MARISA: That is not necessarily legal in Rhode Island because this bill is the first of its kind to introduce natural organic reduction.
CLARICE: Yeah. I love the tree pod idea and this is not that far off.
[0:02:57] MARISA: It’s not. This is a little bit different in that this proposed bill would allow for existing funeral homes and the types of facilities that deal with disposition of a deceased human being by adding a provision that would allow for biodegrading of human remains.
CLARICE: And that being said, too, I think it’s important to know that this could be an addition for existing homes but would involve a lot of additional modifications, so it’s not something that’s going to be taking place in your down the street funeral home. It’s not something that’s just going to be happening in established funeral homes as is. Lots of modifications have to occur. There’s got to be space for it. It’s not something that’s just going to like happen in a basement.
CLARICE: There’s a lot of inaudible.
MARISA: I’m sure that was the first question that you had, Clarice, can I do this in my basement. And the answer is —
MARISA: — maybe. Maybe if you were to go through the course of action required by the proposed bill. It’s administrative in nature. You have to prove to the department of health that you have appropriate space, appropriate equipment, appropriate processes, planning. The statute talks a lot about secured facilities. They don’t want human natural organic reduction processes to take place in the front window of a licensed facility, so.
CLARICE: Nor too close to a drain. I mean, like —
MARISA: As you know, I work for the Rhode Island Senate. I’m the legal counsel for the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture. There is not a companion bill as far as I know on the Senate side and I also have not been privy to the House deliberations on this particular bill, but I imagine that a lot of the revisions to the draft bill came as a result of public testimony provided where folks said things like, we’re concerned that it’s going to impact our property value, we don’t want to be able to see, smell, or hear this process. I don’t know how you can hear the process, but. So I’m sure a lot of the fail-safes in the bill are a result of those concerns.
CLARICE: Yeah. Which is why I wanted to say that pretty close to the top. There’s containment around it, so it’s sort of a sight unseen process. But kind of shifting, I wanted to touch on why this is related. Obviously composting is an environmental topic, but why is — more so the impact of cemeteries in cremation, how is that an environmental topic? Do you have any thoughts on the positive or negatives to both burial and cremation?
[0:06:21] MARISA: Now, you know I love when you throw a cold question at me like that.
CLARICE: It’s my favorite.
MARISA: And I am an attorney, so I will bullshit when I have to, but in this particular instance I do have a thought on cemeteries and I think it’s not a — it doesn’t require any expertise. It seems pretty common sense to me. We’re running out of land. This planet has a major, major overpopulation problem and historically we’ve, of course, wanted to honor our dead and we’ve placed them in cemeteries where you can go and visit and pay homage and respect and I think that’s great except that land is finite.
And as people continue to be born and pass on, the concept of putting them in the ground and reserving land for cemetery use is going to become infeasible. The idea of human composting is the opposite of the cemeterial process, if you will, where under this proposed bill once the process for human composting is over it turns into soil and the soil, under the bill, will be dispersed either at existing cemetery sites or designated human composting area. From my review of the bill, it’s not like you can get this material back and then just go through it in your yard. That could be in the future maybe people want to do that, but for now it’s a pretty —
CLARICE: It could have been nice for a memorial garden, hopefully in the future.
MARISA: Well, you can get a designation, I guess, as a memorial garden.
MARISA: I don’t know what that process looks like, but. So I don’t think that cemeteries are a sustainable practice.
CLARICE: Which is interesting because that just focuses on the use of land.
CLARICE: That doesn’t even get into the idea of what we’ve decided to put in the land.
MARISA: Yeah. Right.
CLARICE: 30 million board feet of hardwood is estimated to have been used in cemeteries, not including over 2,000 tons of copper and bronze. Holy cow. I hope I have this right. Over 100,000 tons of steel and over a million tons of reinforced concrete.
[0:09:07] MARISA: So cemeteries are not — what’s the word I’m looking for here. Cemeteries that we’re using today are not sustainable. Historically when folks were put into a casket and interred the casket was made of wood. Is wood biodegradable? Over time everything is biodegradable. But today you’ve got, like you just said, concrete, brass, metal, copper. That’s not biodegradable.
CLARICE: That doesn’t even talk about the chemicals involved.
MARISA: And didn’t we do a podcast on climate change and how that is anticipated to impact cemeteries?
MARISA: With groundwater rising, everything else rises.
MARISA: All the way around I support this bill.
CLARICE: Yeah. Yeah. This is exciting. As my own personal choice, I thought that cemeteries were, you know, similar to how you’re saying. I just don’t think it’s a sustainable option. I know there are some countries where you can rent a family plot and if it’s something that’s really meaningful to your family you keep continuing to rent out that plot. And if it doesn’t work out, you know, or you lapse on that lease, that person is exhumed. Their remains are cremated and then returned to the family.
MARISA: Stop it.
CLARICE: I believe in Germany. I could be very wrong, but I know that does happen in some places where you can lease —
MARISA: That is crazy.
CLARICE: You can lease land for a certain amount of years.
MARISA: And if they don’t pay the bill, you’re out?
CLARICE: I’m sure they give notice. Like you have your notice to quit and then you’re evicted. I’ll look into it more.
CLARICE: We may do an update but that’s what I’ve heard.
MARISA: I don’t know about that.
CLARICE: For all of those reasons, I thought cremation —
MARISA: Terrible idea.
CLARICE: — was a safer option.
CLARICE: Or a more sustainable option. Turns out I was wrong again because all of the chemicals that are used to embalm and essentially inter and preserve a person prior to cremation —
MARISA: What? Really?
CLARICE: Apparently all of those chemicals —
MARISA: Why do you need chemicals to do that process?
CLARICE: I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe you can waive it. I haven’t really asked around.
MARISA: I didn’t know that. I don’t like that.
CLARICE: Do we have people in the funerary business who listen? Can you write in? I’d love to know.
MARISA: Did you just make up a word?
[0:12:01] CLARICE: Funerary? That’s a real word.
MARISA: All right.
CLARICE: Fall River is the funeral capital of America.
MARISA: Funerary. Okay.
CLARICE: So cremation is not much better because —
MARISA: I’m really surprised to hear that.
CLARICE: Inaudible. Yeah.
MARISA: I thought it was just pressure and heat.
CLARICE: Apparently the cost to heat it and the fuel needed — you apparently need a lot of fuel to get that system extremely hot, so it’s not — it’s slightly better because it’s not continual use of land, but it’s not far off. So composting.
MARISA: Well, one other element of this topic that I wanted to talk about, I was not aware of the human composting process. For some reason I thought that cremation was less inclusive of chemicals and materials. I thought it was, like I said, just heat and pressure and I thought maybe human composting required some — not chemicals but maybe a burial or, I don’t know, something to speed up the natural decomposition process, but as it turns out I Googled it to see exactly what human composing looks like and to start it harkens back to my Catholic roots because it appears as though the deceased is first wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or covered with a blanket.
CLARICE: Well, that feels nice.
MARISA: Yes. Yes. It’s like Jesus, you know, wrapped in the shroud. And, anyway, so after that —
CLARICE: I was just thinking I always get cold, so there you go.
MARISA: Yeah. So you would opt for the blanket. You would check the blanket box. After the blanket or shroud is placed, then the deceased is placed in either a composting vessel or a reusable container made of metal, plastic, or wood that has been filled with organic matter. The organic matter can be wood chips, straw, alfalfa, saw dust, and wildflowers.
CLARICE: Oh, that’s nice.
MARISA: I’m loving this.
CLARICE: I’m not mad about this at all.
[0:15:02] MARISA: Once the body is laid on top of the organic layer, any inorganics like the blanket or mementos that loved ones have left with the deceased are removed and the vessel is closed to begin the process, so it’s a closed vessel. I mean, it’s not —
MARISA: I’m sure there’s some oxygenation required, but it’s got to be closed, right?
MARISA: Makes sense.
CLARICE: Yeah. It’s not out and exposed to the elements, to kind of disturb other people’s lives. It’s not going to hinder other folks around.
CLARICE: Which I think is important to know. This is a process that’s legal already in, it looks like, a couple other states, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, California, Colorado, and New York, so this is something that’s already happening and the process takes somewhere to 30 to 45 days.
MARISA: Yes. Not long at all.
CLARICE: Not long. No.
MARISA: The other interesting scientific element here is that this is a lot like your typical garden composting process. There are microbes in the organic matter that do the work and there’s quite a bit of heat generated as you might think. If you compost at home, you know that a lot of heat comes off of the material, so the same thing goes on here. Air flow has to be facilitated because there is an oxygen component that you need. And some facilities have a monitoring system to make sure that temperature and air flow is optimum. Like you said, only a period of 30 to 45 days for the process and so loved ones, if my recollection is accurate, I think that’s about the same amount of time that you wait for the — oh, my God. What’s it called?
MARISA: Thank you. For the cremains to come back.
CLARICE: So not much change in the process from there.
CLARICE: I also looked at a couple other, I guess, companies or services or, you know, organizations that are doing this and it looks like — I don’t know the name. There’s one group called EarthFuneral.com. We’ll link it in the notes because they had a really interesting FAQ page that I thought was kind of helpful. But it looks like they have a process in which a portion of the soil gets returned to the family. I don’t know if it’s just a small memorial portion, maybe just for like a symbolic reason. And then it seems that a majority of the soil is then sent to help with conservation sites and restoration projects.
[0:18:24] MARISA: Cool.
CLARICE: Which is another good recycling use.
MARISA: Yeah. I agree. From the research that I did, it looks like once a human body is done with the composting process it results in roughly a cubic yard of organic material which is about enough to fill the bed of a pickup truck. Seems like a lot.
CLARICE: That’s a lot.
MARISA: Yes. Yes.
CLARICE: I can’t fill a pickup truck now. How do we get to be more? Inaudible the material.
MARISA: Well, and for myself my brain is really big, so that would account for at least half of that.
CLARICE: Oh, it expands.
MARISA: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m a genius. Getting back to the draft bill. There’s a lot of discussion about making sure that the identity of the person is confirmed prior to organic decomposition beginning. And one section I thought was interesting is that there’s a separate clause about how remains shall not be commingled.
CLARICE: I hope not.
MARISA: I wonder if that’s like a, we know that human beings don’t always do the right thing and we want to make sure that there’s no cutting corners and people — yeah. That’s my guess as to why that language is there.
CLARICE: It’s happened before and that’s why they’re being clear about it. Wow.
MARISA: What else on this, anything?
CLARICE: Very cool. I’m excited to see where this goes. Now, you had mentioned that there’s no companion bill in the Senate.
MARISA: Not as far as I know.
CLARICE: Yes. So is that something that you think would be necessary for this to progress, or —
MARISA: Yeah. If there’s no —
CLARICE: — how does that weigh into this process, for our listeners?
MARISA: If there’s no companion bill, the House bill still would need to get voted on and approved by the House. Then it would go to the House floor where it would be voted on again. And then it’s my understanding that there has to be a companion bill for — both sides have to pass the same bill. A lot of times you get one bill in the House and one bill in the Senate and they’re not the same, so those two have to get rectified. That’s got to get figured out for this to become state law and then of course the governor would have to sign it into law.
[0:21:26] CLARICE: Is it common for a bill to go through one — and when I say side, House or Senate and go through that process first and then the companion bill gets created, or does it often happen simultaneously and they just —
MARISA: It has to happen simultaneously in the same legislative session.
CLARICE: That’s an interesting little —
MARISA: Again, I’ve not heard of a Senate bill, but it could be that it’s in another committee or just not before the committee that I work on. If anyone cares I support this bill. I think it’s necessary and I think it’s —
MARISA: — far better for the environment. I like the idea that your energy can be converted and can remain on a planet to assist with conservation. That’s right up my alley.
CLARICE: I love it. Yeah. So we will attach this — we’re going to attach this draft bill in the show notes. We’ll attach the article that kind of sparked the conversation as well as, like I said, that FAQ that I found and any other info that we might have used. The draft bill is only 11 pages. The first couple pages do spend a bit of time just talking about definitions of things, so it is a quick read in that sense. But let us know what your thoughts if. If anybody has any strong reactions and you’re comfortable sharing, we want to hear it.
CLARICE: Yeah. You can let us know on the socials at Desautel Law. We are on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. You can watch our videos on YouTube. If you want to send us an e-mail it’s Help@DesautelESQ.com.
MARISA: Nicely done.
CLARICE: Thank you. Thank you. Everybody have a great week.