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Arizona lawmakers to consider cremation rules change

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- It's not quite ashes to ashes. But there's an element of dust to dust in some new legislation to allow Arizonans to make garden mulch out of the dearly departed.
Legislation awaiting debate in the full House would allow companies to offer "natural organic reduction'' as alternatives to burial or traditional cremation.
Like cremation, the family would get back the remains. But unlike cremation, which essentially leaves the crushed bones, this process produces what amounts to garden mulch.
Jake Hinman, lobbyist for National Organic Reduction of Arizona, which wants to start offering the process here, said there are add-ins which are all natural, including organic materials like alfalfa or other items that provide nitrogen and carbon.
"Then heat and oxygen are also added to simply accelerate that microbial breakdown,'' he said.
"So, over the course of about 30 days, the body is mostly reduced and then it's sifted out,'' Hinman continued, meaning screws and other foreign objects in the body.''
And the bones?
"The smaller bones, believe it or not, are able to be reduced down,'' he explained. But that still leaves the larger bones.
Those are crushed, using the same mechanical process as a regular cremation, and mixed back into the soil.
"All that added calcium is great for the soil,'' Hinman said.
And then the dearly departed can become part of a garden.
"The family can then use the soil to plant a tree,'' he told lawmakers.
"They can plant the grieving family's favorite flowers,'' Hinman continued, saying in the spring, when those flowers bloom, "there's a tremendous sort of spiritual connection for these grieving families.''
Only thing is, while that procedure is legal in seven other states, Hinman said anyone who tries to do "natural reduction'' here now would violate state law.
What is acceptable in Arizona starts with traditional burial or donation for science or medicine.
Then there's cremation as it's commonly understood. That is defined in statute as the heating process "that reduces human remains to bone fragment by combustion and evaporation.''
More recently, Arizona lawmakers have given approval to a process called "alkaline hydrolysis.'' That's a variant on cremation, where a body is reduced to its "essential elements'' using a solution of waster, alkaline chemicals, heat, agitation and pressure, all to accelerate the normal decomposition process.''
And in both cases, what the family gets back are ashes which can be buried, scattered or kept in a container.
It's what's left over that HB 2081 proposes to change.
"It's oftentimes met with a little intrigue, maybe with a little surprise,'' Hinman told lawmakers. But that then leads to more questions and, sometimes, a desire to know more and possibly choose that as an option.
And he said the fact that seven states have adopted this -- and that his client wants to get into the business here -- shows there is some demand.
There certainly was curiosity by the lawmakers who heard the bill.
Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, questioned how much would be left. Hinman said it comes down to about a cubic yard -- three feet by three feet by three feet -- because it also includes all the organic material added to accelerate the process.
"Very intriguing,'' Payne said.
But there's a practical consideration: How to handle what's left.
After all, unlike other processes which get rid of much of what is liquid in the body, this keeps everything. So that means what families end up with includes not just the weight of the dearly departed but also the weight of everything else added.
So think about getting not just an urn with ashes but some kind of container weighing 200 pounds or more. And that, Hinman acknowledged, presents logistical questions that families will have to answer when deciding if this is the way to go.
"Families can pick up the soil if they have a large enough vehicle,'' he said. Then there's the question of whether someone has use for that much soil.
Hinman said the state of Washington has a program where the remains can be donated and used on reforestation and similar projects.
Rep. Cory McGarr had his own thoughts, suggesting that the legislation be dubbed "The Circle of Life.''
"I'm a child of the 90s,'' said the Marana lawmaker. "And I remember "The Lion King.''
That refers to a talk that Mufassa had with tiny Simba, his son.
"When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass,'' Mufassa said. "And so we are all connected to the great Circle of Life.''
Movie references aside, Hinman told McGarr he was "connecting on the value of this.''
"There are a lot of folks that feel that sort of spiritual connection of going back to earth and allowing their body to become one with it,'' he said.
All that was enough for HB 2018 to get unanimous approval of the House Committee on Regulatory Affairs this past week and advance it to the full House. An identical measure, SB 1042, sponsored by Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, is awaiting action this coming week in the Senate Committee on Finance and Commerce.
There is a cost to all this.
Hinman estimates the process will set families back about $5,000. That compares with standard cremation which, without extras like viewing, services and certain containers, can come in under $1,000.
As to a standard burial, all that depends on what a family wants. Plus there are costs for embalming, which is not legally necessary, and the casket which can be the most expensive element. puts the average cost of a full-service burial in Arizona at $7,654.
And that doesn't even consider the cemetery plot.

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