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The Future of Death-Tech Has No Rules—Yet

The Future of Death-Tech Has No Rules—Yet

For death-tech startups, convincing legislators that their inventions should fall under the “cremation” umbrella is the fastest way to begin operation

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For death-tech startups, convincing legislators that their inventions should fall under the “cremation” umbrella is the fastest way to begin operations. Old phrases like “thermal process” can get in the way for some companies and technologies. Specifying “thermal” would seem to exclude alkaline hydrolysis and promession, for example. But in a 2016 paper, Texas Southern University law professor Asmara M. Tekle points out that other death-tech startups might benefit from the same wording. Human composting uses heat to reduce the body, and so might reasonably be understood as a sort of “cremation by carbon.” In that case, it would already be legal in most of the country. (Only one state so far has explicitly legalized the practice.)

But because of a precedent set in Ohio, startups are leery of launching their products without legislative approval. In 2011, a funeral director named Jeff Edwards began performing alkaline hydrolysis in Ohio even though the state had not explicitly legalized the process. He interpreted the broad language of an old Ohio statute, which allowed “burial, cremation, or other manner of final disposition,” to mean that alkaline hydrolysis was legal. Without consulting the state, he went ahead with his alkaline hydrolysis business. Months later, the state rebuked him. Health officials ruled that alkaline hydrolysis was not, in fact, legal under state law, and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors lambasted Edwards for his “immoral or unprofessional conduct.”

Fear of another incident like in Ohio lingers. While some states may in fact consider human composting legal, few death-tech companies are willing to take the risk. As a result, states that have clear, up-to-date rules on the disposition of dead bodies are all the more appealing for new businesses.

So far nineteen U.S. states have revisited their disposition laws to legalize alkaline hydrolysis. While a few created fresh rules that treat alkaline hydrolysis as a unique disposition method, most elected to tweak their existing cremation laws to include it. Maine, for one, specified in 2009 that “cremation” can occur “through other processes, including, but not limited to, chemical dissolution.” Colorado deleted the phrase “direct exposure to intense heat” from its cremation law in 2011.

Some of these updates have come at the request of death-tech companies themselves. California rewrote its cremation law in 2017 at the urging of the alkaline hydrolysis startup Qico, then offered the new company $1.6 million in tax credits. This past May, Washington became the first state to legalize human composting. Recompose, the startup that pushed for that law, plans to open its first composting facility in Seattle in December 2020. And this spring, legislators in Colorado will consider a similar bill to legalize the practice of turning cadavers into soil.

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Localities have become adept at this sort of signaling to tech companies, no matter the industry those companies might be trying to disrupt. Sometimes it’s more subtle: Arizona, for example, has granted startups a two-year leeway period in which they can test their products before applying for a formal business license. In other places, it’s more blatant: in 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enticed Amazon by lighting up the city’s most iconic monuments in the company’s orange. (Several billion dollars in promised tax breaks also served as an inducement.) But it’s far easier to lure companies in the business of alternative cremation: All you have to do is fiddle with some phrases in an outdated law.

The fiddling can get a little finicky, though. In 2010, Kansas decided it was time to open up its disposition laws to emerging technologies such as alkaline hydrolysis. The state replaced its old definition of cremation, as the “reduction of a dead human body to essential elements through direct exposure to intense heat and flame,” with a much more open-ended one. Now it would refer to any “dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments.” “The intent was to broaden the statute for future forms of disposition,” said Mack Smith, executive secretary of the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts, the body that oversaw the new regulation.

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