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Olson Kundig Architects came up with this concept for Recompose’s 18,500-square-foot memorial center, planned for Seattle’s Sodo district. (Olson Kundig / Recompose Illustration)

It’s hard enough protecting your personal information while you’re alive, but you also have to worry about it after you die. For example, what will happen to all those postings and profiles you’ll be leaving behind on social media?

Researchers addressed that conundrum — as well as other issues at the intersection of technology and mortality — today in Seattle during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Faheem Hussain, an expert on technology policy at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, said people’s digital remains are often overlooked in the upheaval that occurs after they die. That’s a “design flaw,” he said.

“We, the citizens, the users don’t talk about it,” he explained. “We don’t raise our voice. That’s something we should do.”

Social-media companies do have procedures for memorializing or deleting a deceased person’s account. But those who pass away may not make their intentions clear in advance, and the legalities vary from state to state.

For example, Washington state puts the responsibility in the hands of a designated fiduciary rather than friends or next of kin, and it can take up to 60 days for that fiduciary’s authority to be verified.

Hussain said the system leaves plenty of room for postmortem mischief — for example, the possibility that someone with access to your social-media or email accounts will take advantage of your online presence (and physical non-presence).

“Imagine somebody is using your social-media account to actively pretend that you are alive, and then start accumulating data,” he said. “My faked LinkedIn profile may have job interviews, offers and stuff like that. And many other things, imagine, do not require [me] to go physically to online jobs. Long story short, I can have a fake ‘me’ living happily ever after.”

AAAS panel
Arizona State University’s Faheem Hussein, the University of Washington’s Malia Fullerton and Washington State University’s Lynne Carpenter-Boggs focus on the intersection of technology and death. (AAAS via LiveStream)

Concerns about the disposition of digital assets also extend to DNA profiles, which are proliferating thanks to the rise of direct-to-consumer genetic testing services ranging from Ancestry.com to 23andMe.

“Our information could continue to be used in the context of the kind of relational exercises which are currently being done, like in 23andMe, finding relatives,” said Malia Fullerton, a bioethicist at the University of Washington. “So what would that mean for a near or distant relative to locate us via participation in a direct-to-consumer genetic testing product, long after we are gone?”

Although the distribution of DNA data is technically governed by consent agreements and privacy policies, Fullerton noted that consent agreements are often interpreted more broadly than consumers would assume — and there are questions about what happens to your privacy rights after you pass away.

“Our genetic information can be basically commodified and continue to create and generate a commercial product long after we are gone,” she said.

Just as technological advances are posing new problems relating to our digital remains, other advances are presenting new possibilities for dealing with our physical remains.

A Seattle venture called Recompose is getting ready to offer a service that’ll turn you into soil once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil  Washington state lawmakers gave the green light to human composting, more formally known as natural organic reduction, in a first-of-its-kind law that takes effect in May.

Instead of cremating your remains or burying them, Recompose would place your body onto a bed of plant material, and then use a high-heat process over the course of four to seven weeks to turn it into rich, pathogen-free compost. (The bones that survive the composting process would be pulverized into powder, as they would be after cremation.)

Recompose has laid out plans for building an 18,500-square-foot facility in Seattle’s Sodo district. And at last report, the company was more than halfway through a $6.75 million investment round. The planned price point is about $5,500, which is between the cost of a cremation (typically in the $1,000-to-$7,000 range) and a traditional burial ($8,000 and up).

“We’ve had, overall, a very positive response to developing this option,” said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University who serves as a research adviser to Recompose. “There is still a bit of research and development happening to convert this into a fully commercialized process. The timeline is for that officially to open in about one year from now.”

Organic reduction builds on years of research into composting animal carcasses.

“It’s actually a fairly common practice on livestock farms,” Carpenter-Boggs said. Farmers in Central Washington used the technique to dispose of hundreds of cows who died last year during a freak blizzard.

Six human research subjects were composted in 2018 as part of a pilot project, but all the other experimentation to date has been done with livestock materials, Carpenter-Boggs said. Colorado is already considering legislation similar to Washington’s, and Carpenter-Boggs said she’s also been in contact with interested parties from the Netherlands and South Korea.

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In addition to clearing the way for human composting, Washington’s new law will also legalize another technique for breaking down human bodies, known as alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation. The process, which involves immersion in a high-temperature, high-pressure solution of water and sodium hydroxide, has already been cleared for use on human remains in Oregon.

Aquamation produces a powdery residue that’s similar to sand or cremation ashes. In contrast, Recompose’s process would produce one to two cubic yards of compost, or at least a couple of wheelbarrows’ worth.

What will loved ones do with all that mortal soil?

“The current idea is that families may want all of that material, or just a small amount,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “In any case, there’ll need to be local conservation areas that are ready to accept the other material that doesn’t go back to families.”

Recompose’s founder and CEO, Katrina Spade, has estimated that each natural organic reduction will save more than a metric ton of carbon, in comparison with the CO2 emissions that are associated with cremation.

The compost that’s created will be a “net positive,” Carpenter-Boggs noted. “It is multi-decadal carbon storage, and improves soil health and plant growth,” she said.

Watch the full AAAS news briefing about death in the 21st century.

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