All options for the end of life care—including ecological burial methods and organic burial—should be available and accessible to everyone.
However, finding an eco-friendly organic burial method can be challenging, such as green burial or natural organic reduction. In addition, legal guidelines surrounding the process are minimal, vague, and confusing in some communities.
This article will explain the legality of various eco-friendly burial and organic burial options.
The goal is to make ecological burial methods easier to access, no matter where you live.
It will also provide a clear and straightforward plan for pursuing an eco-friendly organic burial.
The information here is highly subject to change. State legislation is updated frequently, so we will provide resources to continue this research independently.
Before exploring the legality of eco-friendly burial, it is essential to understand the green burial options available in the U.S. today.
The definitions used here are the legal definitions provided by the Washington State Legislature.
Natural organic reduction, more commonly known as human composting or terramation, is a novel approach to body disposition.
It combines the natural principles of decomposition with the desire to avoid the negative environmental impacts associated with traditional burial methods.
The Washington State Legislature defines natural organic reduction as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.”
This process begins with the placement of the deceased body into a pod with woodchips and alfalfa. These natural materials provide insulation and allow for decomposition to occur rapidly.
After approximately 60 days, the body decomposes into soil. Further, cremated remains and human compost soil have the same legal classification. And family and loved ones may use or dispose of human compost as they see fit.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a non-intrusive disposition method with a minimal environmental impact.
The Washington State Legislature defines the process as “reducing human remains to bone fragments and essential elements in a licensed hydrolysis facility using heat, water, and base chemical agents.”
A funeral director places the deceased’s body into a large chamber with a mixture of water and alkaline chemicals. The chamber is sealed and heated to 200-300°F for several hours, producing a sterile liquid solution.
The bones of the deceased, which cannot break down through hydrolysis, are pulverized into ash, just as they would be after a traditional cremation.
These remains are given to the family to be scattered, buried, or placed in an urn.
Specific processes can vary, but a simple, chemical-free interment in a natural wooden box at its most basic green burial.
Green burial has almost no adverse environmental impact because it does not involve embalming, cremation, or other potentially harmful processes.
Instead, the body is laid in an untreated wood coffin or a biodegradable burial shroud and buried in the ground, allowing for natural decomposition to take place over time.
Green burials often require special land permits or a green cemetery.
In a word, yes! The three eco-friendly disposition methods described above are all legal in the state of Washington.
The introduction of human composting faced a great deal of criticism.
Entrenched in traditional burial methods of embalming and cremation, American society may find it challenging to adapt.
However, as more Washington citizens began to support eco-friendly disposition methods, a movement to diversify death care grew in earnest.
This movement was first recognized in the Washington State Government by State Senator Jamie Pedersen, who advocated for natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis.
Reintroduced in 2019 the Pedersen’s original bill failed.
The Washington State Legislature passed the new bill—Senate Bill 5001—in April 2019, and it took effect on May 1, 2020. SB 5001 legalized both natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis in Washington State.
Currently, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado are the only states in the U.S. where natural organic reduction is legal.
We recognize, however, that there are people who wish to be terramated that live outside of these states.
Accordingly, Return Home is working to coordinate long-distance transportation for people outside of Washington State; contact us for details.
Before the Washington legislature could approve Natural organic reduction as a feasible disposition method, research was conducted into how long it takes to compost a human body.
In addition, natural materials provide the best insulation and soil toxicity after recomposition is complete.
These studies found that composting takes 45-60 days when surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and similar natural insulation.
The composted remains turned into slightly alkaline soil that had no foul odor.
Further, microbes responsible for the body’s decomposition also destroy pathogens and process non-organic elements, resulting in sterile soil within the acceptable federal limit for heavy metals.
After this research finished, cremation-related legislation changed.
The legislation includes terminology specific to natural organic reduction and alkaline hydrolysis.
Natural organic reduction, or human composting, is a viable option for almost anyone who wants to pursue an eco-friendly burial.
In some rare cases, however, public health and safety concerns can restrict eligibility.
For example, an individual who passed away because of a highly infectious disease cannot be terramated because infectious remains may be a human health hazard.
Likewise, the remains of individuals who suffered from prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, cannot be accepted for recomposition.
The sterile soil produced at the end of the Natural organic reduction process is also legally regulated.
According to Section 21 of Washington SB 5001, human compost is legally classified in the same category as ashes produced by traditional cremation or alkaline hydrolysis.
The disposition of these remains “may occur on private property with the consent of the property owner; and on public or government lands or waters with the approval of the government agency that has either jurisdiction or control, or both, of the lands or waters.”
In simpler terms, on private land, the family and loved ones of the deceased have full control over the final resting place of the soil created by the natural organic reduction process.
If they wish, the family can scatter the soil in public places with appropriate government approval.
Under the legislative definition of cremation, alkaline hydrolysis has been legal for decades in several states.
However, facilities that offer the practice were few and far between until recently.
Unfortunately, alkaline hydrolysis equipment is expensive, totaling between $150,000 and $500,000, and many facilities are hesitant to invest such a large sum.
Despite this, there are several states where alkaline hydrolysis is legal and accessible.
Alkaline hydrolysis is currently legal in 18 states, including:
Legalization does not always lead to accessibility.
For example, alkaline hydrolysis became legal in states like Georgia and Idaho more than five years ago.
However, no funeral homes in-state offer the service. Of the 18 states in which alkaline hydrolysis is legal, it is only available in 9.
This discrepancy is buoyed by the fact that legalization in states like Washington is incredibly recent.
Likely, facilities in these states will soon adjust and add alkaline hydrolysis to their offerings.
In some states, the legalization of alkaline hydrolysis bill immediately reversed.
For example, in New Hampshire, lawmakers repealed the legalization in 2008, only two years after it first passed.
A new bill, proposed in 2013, failed. As a result, no relevant measures have been put forth in New Hampshire since.
Similarly, the Ohio Senate passed an alkaline hydrolysis bill later turned down due to dissent from the Catholic Conference of Bishops, resulting in the movement’s failure.
This constant back-and-forth can leave those considering Alkaline hydrolysis on shaky ground, unsure how to plan for the future.
In states where alkaline hydrolysis is legal, it can still be challenging to find a facility with the proper equipment to perform the method.
Some facilities are willing to ship remains out of state for processing.
Ultimately, the most significant restriction on alkaline hydrolysis is a physical location.
In states where the method is not yet legal, it would be necessary to find a facility that offers the process out of state, and then the body would need to be shipped there.
Even in states where alkaline hydrolysis is legal, finding a properly equipped facility may be difficult or impossible.
Many of the standard components of a traditional burial, including the use of burial vaults and caskets, are not based on legal requirements or guidelines but simply on societal customs.
American federal law requires that all funeral homes offer a green “Direct Burial.”
The bodies undergo no embalming treatment in this hybrid offering and buried in a modest wooden casket.
However, all funeral homes must follow rigid restrictions. For example, burial must occur within 24 hours, a deadline almost impossible to meet in an eco-friendly manner without a pre-prepared green cemetery or private burial plot.
Without extensive planning, remains are buried in a typical cemetery, and the burial would not be entirely green.
Of course, the decision to pursue a green burial is highly personal. However, pre-planning a green burial plot is not always possible.
On the other hand, some adverse environmental impacts are avoided even without extensive preparation.
With no chemicals and no specialized or treated casket, a direct burial can be less environmentally harmful than a traditional one.
No federal laws prohibit green burial in the United States.
However, federal and state laws regulate the legality of the burial’s location, land ownership, grave depth, and more.
In all states except Arkansas, burial can happen on private land. But counties and cities have highly variable zoning requirements and regulations, primarily urban and suburban areas.
Some counties allow private property designated as a documented private family cemetery.
However, many individuals prefer to coordinate with a green cemetery, where a facility manages legal requirements and maintains the burial plot for a one-time fee.
Many green cemeteries prohibit the use of burial vaults or caskets made out of metal or other non-biodegradable materials.
In addition, most states require that the body is buried or naturally preserved (refrigerated) within 24 hours of death.
The most complex regulations surrounding green burial are the zoning and land use requirements.
Many states allow for “home burial,” or the burial of human bodies on a family’s private property, but strictly regulate how far from buildings and water sources bodies can be interred and at what depth.
Home burials are not legal in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Louisiana, or Washington State.
In these states, or for those to whom home burial does not appeal, green cemeteries allow for the grave’s opening, closing, and maintenance.
They ensure that the Green Burial adheres to all local and state regulations while allowing the facility to handle protocol, so the family doesn’t have to.
Green cemeteries usually provide these services in return for a one-time fee.
Individual cemeteries may have guidelines for the green burial of bodies with pacemakers, screws, joint replacements, fillings, or other hardware.
However, removing these items is invasive, and their impact on the environment after decomposition is negligible, so many facilities opt to leave them in place.
Although these broad guidelines are standard, individual state and county regulations vary widely.
Check with local green cemeteries and regional governmental organizations to learn more.
Beginning to plan green burial doesn’t have to be confusing.
These steps will clearly outline how to choose features and options for final disposition.
Which disposition method fits the needs of the burial? Consider the economic, emotional, and practical aspects. These might include:
The practicality of eco-friendly burial options can vary by state, county, and city. For example, only 18 U.S. states allow Alkaline hydrolysis, and Natural organic reduction is only legal and available in Washington State.
If necessary, consider how feasible the arrangement and shipment of remains would be and how much time or cost it would add to the burial.
Contacting final disposition facilities can help when discussing details and logistics.
Roadblocks or impasses may come up during this process. If they do, return to Step One and consider an alternative.
If the preferred disposition method is legal and available, engage with a local facility or cemetery to create a plan.
Eco-friendly burial options are available and attainable, but planning ensures a smoother process down the road.
At Return Home, we offer human composting nationwide.
No matter the level of knowledge and commitment, research and preparation are always good ideas.
Laws can change quickly, and what may be illegal or unavailable now could be legalized soon.
The New Hampshire Funeral Resources provides an easy-to-read table of legal burial requirements by state here.
Return Home has the information and resources to help plan natural organic reduction human composting.
Learn more about our process, pricing, and options for out-of-state individuals.