URBAN DEATH PROJECT
The Urban Death Project is a compost-based renewal system. At the heart of the project is a three-story core, within which bodies and high-carbon materials are placed.
Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a rich compost.
The Urban Death Project is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature.
The deceased may be stored in a refrigerated space for up to ten days before the ceremony takes place. There is no embalming because decomposition is an important part of the design.
Those closest to the deceased meet the body in the shrouding room, where they wrap it in simple linen. Supportive staff are on hand to assist in this process.
Mourners enter the facility and walk up to the top of the core where they say goodbye to the deceased at the laying in.
At the top of the core, friends and family lay the body into a mixture of woodchips and sawdust.
Over the next few weeks, the body decomposes and turns into a nutrient-rich compost. The process is continuous - new bodies are laid into the system as finished compost is extracted below.
After a month, a rich compost has been created, and is ready to nourish new growth.
Outside, friends and family contemplate the finished compost, a crucial building block of healthy soil. This compost is sacred, both its past and its potential.
Loved ones are encouraged to take some compost back to their own yards and gardens. The compost is also used to nourish the site, and city parks use it to fertilize plants and trees. In this way, the dead are folded back into the fabric of the city.
The deceased are folded back into
the communities where they have lived
as the great potential of our bodies to
grow new life is celebrated.
What is the project's mission?
Our mission is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological urban alternative for the care of the deceased.
What, exactly, is being proposed for the Urban Death Project?
The Urban Death Project (UDP) utilizes the process of composting to safely and gently turn our deceased into soil-building material, creating a meaningful, equitable, and ecological urban alternative to existing options for the disposition of the dead. The project is a solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries, a sustainable method of disposing of our dead, and a new ritual for laying our loved ones to rest.
What is the problem the project is working to solve?
Conventional burial is chosen by more than half of Americans today. The annual tally of buried materials in U.S. cemeteries is more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid. It is disrespectful both to the earth and to ourselves that we fill our dead bodies with toxic fluid before burying them in the ground.
Cremation is a less wasteful option, but cremation in the U.S. emits approximately 600 million lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, which is the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving the road for a year. The more options we have to ecologically and gently care for our dead, the better.
See more information on current practices.
How does this approach represent bold innovation versus the status quo?
The funeral industry is a broken system. Many aren’t prepared to choose how to dispose of a loved one’s body during their time of grief, and so they are pushed to choose the most costly and invasive option. The approach of this project is a bold departure from this status quo – never before have humans been composted. It is inspired by the natural burial movement, a rural option that is respectful of both the human body and the earth. This project changes the way that we think about our bodies after death, to view them as part of the solution to our environmental crisis.
Why would I want my body to decompose?
Unless we are cremated or mummified, our bodies will decompose after we die. Being embalmed and placed in a casket and a concrete grave liner will delay the process, but only for a few weeks or months. We like the idea of facilitating the decomposition, so that our bodies can be part of the earth as soon as possible. We also like the idea that we can be productive and help solve our environmental crisis - even after we die.
In what way will the lives of specific individuals be better because of this project?
Everybody is impacted by death, but people in urban areas and poor people are especially affected by a lack of burial space and the expense of conventional disposal methods. More people live in cities every year (now more than half of the world’s population). It is not a viable option – nor desirable - to have our bodies pumped with toxic chemicals, wrapped in raw materials, and buried in an individual plot where they take up precious arable land. Developing a new system that reduces pollution, supports farming and urban green space development, and creates a local, sustainable, and meaningful ritual for the departed will benefit all of us.
In a broader sense, this organization aims to fundamentally alter the way that we in Western Society think about death. Its goal is to un-do the over-commercialization and needless distance we have created between ourselves and this inevitable human event.
What are the next steps for the project?
Near term activities include raising funds to fully design and build a prototype, continuing our research and testing, and further developing our outreach strategy to get the word out and to engage the community. To become involved, please visit our contact section.
Do you have an Annual Report?
We sure do! Our Annual Report highlights the work done in each of our focus areas as well as specifics about funds raised and how we allocated those funds. Thank you to everyone who donated to the Urban Death Project; together, we are transforming the future of death care.
Check out Digging Deeper for more information.
Press inquiries, please email: email@example.com
Katrina Spade is the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting. Katrina has focused her design career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions. Prior to architecture school, she studied sustainable design and building at Yestermorrow Design Build School, with a focus on regenerative communities and permaculture. While earning her Masters of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build and monitor a compost heating system, a project which helped initiate the Urban Death Project. Katrina earned a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College, and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is an Echoing Green Climate Fellow.
Brian Gix is a 26 year Seattle resident originally from Oregon. He grew up the son of an engineer, on a small family farm, and spent his summers on working on his uncle’s ranch in Northern British Columbia. He has served as a Seattle/King County Metro "Sounding Board" to provide citizen input in mass transit decision, and he is a Democratic Precinct Committee Officer in the 43rd district. Brian is a software engineer.
Brian's passions include progressive politics, the environment, and social justice. He was attracted to the Urban Death Project because it envisions not only a low impact, green return to the earth, but also because of its egalitarian non-profit nature. He hopes to one day be returned to the earth with his wife Shelly, and have his compost added to the urban forests of Seattle. He has two wonderful children who are active and empathetic.
Devon Knowles is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Seattle University School of Law, where she teaches a clinic representing incarcerated parents in child welfare proceedings. Prior to joining Seattle University, Devon worked with the Washington Appellate Project, representing indigent clients in the Washington Court of Appeals and Washington Supreme Court, and as a public defender for The Defender Association, representing individuals in criminal matters as well as in involuntary commitment proceedings and in child welfare proceedings. She has also served as a clerk for the New Jersey Supreme Court, focusing exclusively on death penalty cases.
Devon received her undergraduate degree in philosophy from New York University, graduating magna cum laude. She received her juris doctorate from Columbia Law School, where she was named a Kent scholar and awarded the Charles Evans Hughes Human Rights fellowship. Devon was born and raised in Alaska, and has worked for environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and Oceana.
Nora Menkin is the Managing Funeral Director for The Co-op Funeral Home of People's Memorial, the only not-for-profit cooperative funeral home in the United States. With a background in home funerals, Jewish traditions, and a passion for natural burial and modern funeral practices, Nora started as an intern with The Co-op when it opened its doors in 2007. She became a licensed funeral director in 2009 and was named Managing Funeral Director in 2013. Nora holds her B.A. from University of California, Santa Cruz in Theatre Arts.
Kate Stephenson is the Executive Director of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, a non-profit educational institution in Waitsfield, Vermont dedicated to providing hands-on education that integrates sustainable design and construction as a creative, interactive process. Kate came to Yestermorrow in 2002 with experience planning and facilitating workshops on sustainability education, restoring historic gardens, researching bioenergy projects in developing countries, and promoting land conservation. Kate has served as the Residential Green Building Advocate for the state of Vermont through the US Green Building Council and on the Green Jobs Council at ReSOURCE. She was a co-founder of the Mad River Valley Localvores, a grassroots group focused on promoting and educating about local food. Kate is a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. She holds a MS in Management from Antioch University New England and a BA in Anthropology and Environmental Science from Haverford College.
Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is an Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State University. Her primary areas of research and teaching are biologically intensive and organic farming systems, and beneficial plant-soil-microbial interactions. Because science and society evolve through collaboration, she also works with a broad array of scientists and farmers to understand and improve the carbon footprint of farming, nutritional quality of crops, soil health, and many aspects of sustainability. In addition to her work in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest of the US, she has conducted research and extension in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician in California. She founded the Order of the Good Death in 2011 with the goal of bringing the realistic discussion of death back into popular culture. Caitlin’s webseries “Ask a Mortician” and the Order website have led to features on National Public Radio, BBC, the Huffington Post, Vice, the LA Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Salon. She also co-founded the public engagement series Death Salon.
Her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, is a New York Times Bestseller.
Cheryl A. Johnston, Ph.D. is a board certified forensic anthropologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. She grew up in Asheville, N.C. and earned her doctoral degree at the Ohio State University in 2002. In 2005 she joined the faculty at Western Carolina University. Dr. Johnston has worked as a consultant in forensic anthropology since 1991 for numerous agencies including the Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Macon, and Clay County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Departments, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and numerous Ohio Coroner’s and Sheriff’s Offices. Her major interests in forensic anthropology are age and sex estimation and taphonomic processes, especially the effects of fire on bone. She directs the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory and Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST), one of only a few outdoor decomposition facilities in the world.
Tanya D. Marsh is a Professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A graduate of Indiana University and Harvard Law School, Marsh is a licensed attorney in the State of Indiana and a licensed funeral director in the State of California. At Wake Forest, Marsh teaches courses in property and real estate transactions, as well as the only course in a U.S. law school on funeral and cemetery law. Marsh has been called "our nation's foremost academic scholar on the law of cemeteries and human remains" and is the author of The Law of Human Remains (2015), the first treatise on the subject in 70 years, and the co-author of the first casebook on Cemetery Law (2015). She is also the creator and primary author of The Funeral Law Blog and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.
Alan Maskin is an owner and principal of Olson Kundig – an award winning, Seattle-based design firm. For over two decades he has focused on the design of museums, installations and exhibition projects including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, Microsoft Cybercrime Center, The Frye Art Museum, and the Bezos Center for Innovation. His current work includes a museum about words in Washington, DC and an 80,000 square foot rooftop park in Dongdaegu, South Korea. Maskin is also leading the research project, Rooftop 4: The Fifth Façade, a conceptual investigation into the transformation of the uppermost layer of cities.
Maskin’s work has been recognized by regional, national and international award programs, including several awards from the American Institute of Architects, American Alliance of Museums Media & Technology MUSE Award for Interpretive Interactive Installations, a SEGD Global Design Award, Northwest Design Award for Best in Commercial Design and he was a NIAUSI Fellowship winner.
In addition to his design work, Alan is overseeing the development of Olson Kundig’s creative production studio. He also co-directed and curated the firm’s experimental work space, [storefront] and its subsequent series of site specific collaborative installations around the globe called: Itinerant Projects.
Max Page is Professor of Architecture and History at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the author and editor of eight books: The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (University of Chicago Press, 1999); The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (Yale University Press, 2008); Building the Nation: Americans Write About Their Architecture, Their Cities, and Their Environment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, co-edited with Steven Conn); Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Randall Mason); The Future of Higher Education (Routledge, 2011, with Dan Clawson); Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (Planners Press, 2011, co-edited with Tim Mennell); Campus Guide to the University of Massachusetts (Princeton Architecture Press, 2013, with Marla Miller; and Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). He is a recipient of fellowships from the Howard Foundation, Fulbright Commission, and Guggenheim Foundation. This past year he was a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, working on a book on the future of historic preservation.
The work of the Urban Death Project is made possible by generous support from Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding to innovators working to bring about positive social change.
Excerpt of future documentary by Bernadine Mellis
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© Katrina Spade 2015