In her thirties, Katrina Spade* started thinking about death. She wondered what her parents would do with her body if she were to die and realized she had no idea. In researching her options, she became fascinated by the rituals surrounding how Americans die and found major problems in the paths most of us take. For her master’s thesis at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Spade laid out the Urban Death Project, an ambitious plan to build a system for composting human bodies after death and turning them back into soil.
“If you think about the circle of life, we have the top half, which is growth, but the other half of is death and decay, which we are terribly afraid of,” Spade told Co.Design. “But without that other half, we have no soil, and no life.” With her project, she is trying to “reframe our feelings about decomposition.” “I’m trying to make it a beautiful thing,” she says. The image of bodies decomposing in a pile of wood chips could seem a grisly vision. But after examining what we most commonly do now, Spade’s concept begins to look much more pragmatic. As she writes on her Kickstarter campaign, the environmental toll of traditional burials is steep. “Each year, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic sized swimming pools,” she writes. “The last thing most of us do on this earth is poison it.” Suddenly, decomposing seems a much nicer option.
The proposal includes building Urban Death centers, three-story structures that contain what Spade calls a “core”–where bodies decompose inside. The buildings would be designed by different architects to blend into their surrounding neighborhoods. A funeral ceremony–the sort that would typically take place at a cemetery or funeral home–would instead take place inside an Urban Death center, allowing friends and family of the deceased to lay their loved one to rest in a wood chip pile, wrapped in a compostable shroud.
By combining sawdust and woodchips with the nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium in our bodies, the process of decomposition gets underway and creates natural heat that kills most bacteria, Spade says. After four to six weeks (Spade is currently testing exactly how long the process could take) families could claim the soil made from their loved one and do what it what they like–perhaps store it in an urn, as we store ashes, or even use the soil to plant a memorial garden.
Spade wants gardens that have been fertilized by composted bodies to surround the Urban Death centers. She’d also love to partner with public parks. “I think it would be really great to say, ‘My uncle Joe was composted, and he went to Volunteer Park,'” she says, referencing a public space in Seattle.
Spade believes the project would not be problematic for most religious communities. In her talks with Christian leaders, they have been enthusiastic about the idea. Muslims are already forbidden from embalming their dead, and Jews are buried in plain pine boxes, punched with holes to allow for decomposition. But Spade isn’t trying to force her ideas on any group. “If you are religious, by all means, just follow your tradition,” she says. “I’m not trying to get rid of a conventional burial and cremation, it’s more about providing people with another option.” She points out that other cultures already employ a similar ethos in their rituals for the dead, such as Zoroastrians, who build towers where the dead can be eaten by birds, or Tibetans, whose “sky burials” on high mountaintops similarly expose dead bodies to the elements and wild animals.
In her dream, Spade’s Urban Death centers would be funded by taxpayers and run like municipal library branches. “My long-term vision is for death care to be free and available to all people, like health care should be,” she says. Until then, she plans to serve people on a sliding scale, charging less than the fee for a traditional burial.
You can pay the fee, $2,500, now on her Kickstarter to reserve your spot. (Four backers have already chosen this option.) Up until now, the project has been funded by “conscious investing” nonprofit Echoing Green. The Kickstarter funding will allow the project to progress to the second stage of design and engineering. Land hopes that the first center will be open by 2020.
“The two major events in our lives are birth and death,” Spade says. “We should consider carefully how we die and what we do with our body afterward. It’s an opportunity to live on in a new form.”
*In an earlier version of this article, we referred to the Urban Death Project’s founder as Katrina Lane. Her name is Katrina Spade. We regret the error.