Inside The Urban Death Project: Understanding Life Through Nature

Human beings have tremendous potential to affect the natural world, but we also have the capacity to give back to our planet when we are no longer living: by transforming, quite literally, into nutrient rich organic matter. This poetic means to life after death is a complicated dialogue to initiate as part of a wider cultural conversation about death, but it is one that Katrina Spade plans to implement as a legal option for those who are interested. It’s called the Urban Death Project: a way for humans to give back to the planet by dedicating their bodies to the soil.

The idea for the Urban Death Project came from an existential question that many of us have pondered before, which is still in many circles considered taboo: What happens to my body when I die?

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Right now, there are a few options: cremation, conventional burial, or donating your body to science. The Urban Death Project aims to give the American population a fourth possibility: a compost-based renewal system in which bodies are transformed into organic matter that can be used to enrich soil. “Because death is momentous, miraculous, and mysterious / Because the cycles of nature help us grieve and heal / Because our bodies are full of life-giving potential,” their website reads, the Urban Death Project aims to decompose bodies into living, rich organic matter that can be used to sow new life.

Conventional burial is the funeral methodology chosen by half of Americans today– a tally that accounts for 30 million feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel and copper, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults, and the 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde used to preserve these bodies in coffins and other burial methods, all of which is meant to withstand time and outlast processes that are ultimately natural. Approximately 44% of the U.S. selects cremation as a means to saying goodbye, but this process also emits 540 pounds of carbon dioxide, per body, into the atmosphere.

Given the ostensible carbon footprint of death, several companies have developed eco-friendly funeral options, but much of the conversation surrounding death is so taboo that people are often afraid to explore them. (There’s also something to be said for peoples’ reluctance to contemplate their own mortality.) Among the sustainable alternatives are biodegradable caskets like those manufactured by the Natural Burial Company and Final Footprint, as well as body-planting options like those offered by the Italian Company Capsula Mundi, whose goal is to save trees while simultaneously planting new ones with a biodegradable coffin planted beneath the roots.

There are movements underway in the legislature to allow new and sustainable practices in traditional cemetery burials, but in the U.S., progress is slow to come. The Urban Death Project has designed what is arguably the most sustainable alternative: a way to aid our bodies’ natural decomposition processes by creating a bed of high carbon material.

Iris Gottlieb for the Urban Death Project

When a loved one passes, licensed funeral directors who will function as supportive staff (and loved ones, if they so choose,) will cover the body in a delicate and biodegradable linen before carrying it to the top of a 3-story structure whose core is designed to aerate and assist in natural decomposition. Nitrogen-rich bodies are then covered in wood chips (high carbon material) and with the help of oxygen, the process begins. The second layer of this core screens for anything that is not organic, like titanium hips and gold teeth. At this point the body has evolved into soil and after the mechanical screening has taken place, the soil settles downward to the core.core The model that Spade has engineered allows for approximately 100 bodies to decompose per year, “one ceremony in the morning and one in the afternoon… That’s about all the building and the staff could handle,” she explains.

This burial building will be equipped with bio-filters (organic materials like a pile of hay or a green roof) and thorough filtering systems designed to catch and eliminate any remaining odor. “Redundancy is good. The human experience is about the beauty and the people you are saying goodbye to. [The project] would fail if there was an odor,” she adds, addressing an uncomfortable reality of death and decomposition. As for how long it takes for the body to decompose, Spade is still in the process of researching exactly how and to what extent her team can control what is ultimately a natural process– but with the right conditions, it’s possible that they could develop a timeline that would give loved ones a sense of finality.

The Urban Death Project has partnered with Western Carolina University’s forensic osteology station (FOReSt) to determine the exact amount of time it takes for bodies to decompose. “I usually say 4-6 weeks based on livestock composting,” Spade says. Livestock composting, including the purposeful decomposition of roadkill, was adapted as a waste management strategy over 15 years ago. “The rendering industry [for disposing of animal remains] once disappeared and farmers were having trouble knowing what to do,” Spade explains. “That’s why universities started studying livestock composting; it was a way for farmers to cleanly and faithfully get rid of animal carcasses.” This research, which Spade came across while in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, inspired the model for the Urban Death Project.

FOReSt is currently studying two bodies covered in wood chips and alfalfa that families have donated to the facility. “We take the temperature and then determine what stage they are decomposing at [over time],” says Spade. “It’s likely that we will do some tinkering with the materials to get the right carbon and nitrogen mix, but wood chips make up the bulk of it.” Spade intends for the first facility to open in Seattle, where she is based, and for it to be interwoven as part of a residential and commercial space. “Maybe you wouldn’t even know that it’s an Urban Death Project facility that you’re walking by until you really pay attention,” she offers, “But then again the idea is for different architects to design spaces, in different cities, so I can’t say what will end up happening.” Individuals, municipalities, and organizations interested in building a facility will have Spade’s complete ‘tool kit,’ including regulatory zoning, design, and architecture. This will serve as a “How To” guide for creating a facility anywhere in the world.

Once FOReSt and Spade get decomposition time down to a science, they will be able to pinpoint the amount of time before loved ones can return to collect soil from the facility. The ritual of bringing the body to these spaces is designed to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by reconnecting us with the cycles of nature.

Spade explains: “We’ll even be able to say if you come back in 5 1/2 weeks, on this date, this will be your loved one.” Of course, the soil will not just be the remains of a loved one, but rather their remains incorporated into other organic matter that is part of a larger ecosystem. For many, this process is both beautiful and pragmatic: the soil could be used to sow seeds in a garden or enrich a bed of flowers, giving families a sense of the growth and renewal that ultimately comes out of death. “Culturally, [the Urban Death Project] is asking people to shift their feelings a little about the importance of individual material,” says Spade. While loved ones won’t have a gravestone to visit, you will be able to return to the space to plant flowers, plants, trees, or to take soil to be used in another sentimental space.

Because the Urban Death Project is also a non-profit organization, payment for using this option operates on a sliding scale, with a baseline of $2,500. Families of individuals who have chosen this method should pay what they can. For some this might be $20, while other well-off families may feel inclined to donate above the baseline figure. Not only is this a sustainable practice, but it ensures that even low income populations will have access to eco-friendly funeral options if they choose to pursue them.

Ultimately, the Urban Death Project “looks at one piece of our lives, the very last thing that we do, and it questions whether we want it to be a toxic or polluting moment,” Spade adds with heartwarming enthusiasm. “If you want the last thing you do to be somewhat aligned with how you try to live your life, then it can be.”

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