The Urban Death Project: Should We Compost Human Remains?

Katrina Spade designs a green alternative to traditional burial and cremation
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

In the face of shrinking land resources and concerns about carbon footprints, what do we do with our loved ones when they die? For Katrina Spade, 37, a Capitol Hill–based designer with a master’s degree in architecture, that question arose after she had two kids and began thinking about her own mortality. Traditional burial and cremation both came with environmental consequences that didn’t sit well with her, so she proposed an alternative as a part of her master’s thesis. Called the Urban Death Project, the basic concept is a several-storied building, within city limits, in which a collective pile of bodies can compost over time and ultimately be used as fertilizer. Though not religious, Spade appreciates a sense of ritual—evidenced by her graceful renderings, in which ramps wind up to the top floor, where family members or “death midwives” could wrap the body in linen, say goodbye and gently deposit it into a heap of wood chips and sawdust (which act as a filter to break down odorous gases and limit the smell). Spade recently submitted her proposal to Echoing Green, a New York City–based philanthropic institution that supports ventures for the social good, and was awarded an $80,000 fellowship to explore the idea more fully. Easygoing and not at all morbid, she posits that the compost might be used by family members, in their yards or gardens, or by open city spaces, such as Volunteer Park, where it could supply the park’s landscaping needs. “How incredible would it be to be folded back into the city you love,” she says, “and remain a part of it forever?”

NEED TO KNOW:

1/ Even though collective decomposition makes some people wary, Spade says millennials seem to love the idea. “I hope this doesn’t mean it will take another 60 years to really take off,” she adds.
2/ Seattle is the perfect place to test the concept, Spade says, given our history of innovation and commitment to the environment. Plus, “We have a sense of pride in doing things differently.”
3/ Spade is working with 2020 Engineering in Bellingham to explore permitting and licensing, which will likely be similar to those required for a crematorium. The plan is to first build a prototype on private land outside the city.
4/ Ideally, the Urban Death Project would expand to follow the model of city library branches, where each is designed by a different architect and for the needs of a particular neighborhood.

1/ Even though collective decomposition makes some people wary, Spade says millennials seem to love the idea. “I hope this doesn’t mean it will take another 60 years to really take off,” she adds.

2/ Seattle is the perfect place to test the concept, Spade says, given our history of innovation and commitment to the environment. Plus, “We have a sense of pride in doing things differently.”

3/ Spade is working with 2020 Engineering in Bellingham to explore permitting and licensing, which will likely be similar to those required for a crematorium. The plan is to first build a prototype on private land outside the city.

4/ Ideally, the Urban Death Project would expand to follow the model of city library branches, where each is designed by a different architect and for the needs of a particular neighborhood.

 

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