+ What is the project's mission?
Our mission is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative for the care of the deceased.
To do so, we're creating a holistic new model that is:
- Ecological: providing a disposition system wholly based on the natural cycles - a way to grow new life after death and celebrate our place in the natural world.
- Transparent: being clear with our services and pricing, providing an income-relative fee structure, and cultivating a culture of giving.
- Meaningful: acknowledging that death is an important part of life and supporting the grieving as they participate in all aspects of death care.
At the heart of this model is a new system of disposition called Recomposition, which gently transforms bodies into soil. It is replicable, straightforward, and elegant, removing the manufactured barriers between death and the natural processes of renewal. Environmentally, it is a vast improvement over the industry standard.
In our redesign of the funeral paradigm, these Recomposition systems are housed in community spaces that support the grieving as they return the deceased to the earth. Gardens are nourished from the soil created on-site, as the cycles of life are woven into the urban fabric and become part of the public consciousness.
+ What is the problem the project is working to solve?
Current funerary practices have come to us almost accidentally—part historical convention and part funeral industry mandate—and they are environmentally atrocious. Each year, 2.6 million people die in the U.S, and most are buried in a cemetery or cremated, impacting land use and contributing to climate change. Wasteful, toxic, and polluting, these options undervalue the potential of our bodies and place an enormous strain on the environment.
When left to the status quo, the last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it.
As well, the current funeral system also fails to provide people with the support they need in times of grief. This $20 billion (U.S.) industry depends on the sale of needless consumables to vulnerable people, often turning what should be a meaningful event into a time of consumer confusion. Families struggling to make ends meet are often pushed into debt, and bodies go unclaimed when families cannot afford to bury or cremate them.
+ How does Recomposition differ from 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 "recomposed". Our work 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.
The Urban Death Project is a manifesto for a new model of death care. We believe that humans deserve better than a system that relies on the sale of needless consumables to vulnerable people. Our goal is to banish practices that bewilder and dis-empower, and create a non-profit model that is transparent and meaningful.
+ What will Recomposition cost?
We don't know the exact cost yet, but it's our goal to have Recomposition cost less than the average cremation with a funeral service. As well, we are a non-profit organization, and we are cultivating a culture of giving to support a community fund so that Recomposition is available to all people who want it, regardless of economic status. Access for all is a very important part of our mission.
+ What is the timeline for the project?
Our immediate next step is to build a prototype of the Recomposition system at Washington State University, and run a pilot program in collaboration with the Department of Soil Sciences. We are raising funds RIGHT NOW for that endeavor, so please consider donating to help us with this work.
The prototype will be our first implementation of the Recomposition system. Once the pilot is complete, we will begin implementation of our system in communities all over the world.
If everything goes according to plan, we will open the doors to the first ever Recomposition Center by 2023.
+ Do you have an Annual Report?
We sure do! Our 2015 Annual Report and 2016 Annual Report highlight the work done in each of our focus areas and gives specifics about funds raised and how we allocated those funds. Thanks to everyone who donates to the Urban Death Project, we are transforming the future of death care.
+ How does this project reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
- A fundamentally aerobic process, Recomposition does not produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is produced by anaerobic processes, such as the putrefaction of an embalmed corpse in a sealed concrete vault six feet under.
Recomposition significantly reduces agricultural energy demand, in part because the application of soil results in a reduced need for GHG producing petroleum-based chemical fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and additives. The UDP will partner with community gardens and local farms, so that soil produced directly offsets the use of chemical fertilizers and additives.
Fewer greenhouse gasses will be produced by the manufacture of embalming fluids, vaults and coffins, as more and more people choose to have their bodies Recomposed.
Fewer trees will be cut down to make caskets.
Less arable land will be used for cemeteries, allowing crops to be grown closer to urban centers, reducing the need for fossil fuel powered transport of food.
+ Is it safe to Recompose bodies?
Recomposition is based on the principles of livestock mortality composting, a process which creates heat which in turn kills common viruses and bacteria. Research into mortality composting of livestock has found that the temperature inside the compost reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is high enough to kill off pathogens. Farmers are using mortality composting in order to safely dispose of their dead livestock, as well as to control odor and runoff. The Urban Death Project is fine tuning this process to be appropriate and meaningful for humans in an urban setting.
+ Does the process smell bad?
Research into mortality composting of livestock has shown that the microorganisms present in the wood chips and sawdust break down odorous gases into H20 (water) and CO2 (carbon dioxide). In addition, the wood chips and sawdust act as a filter, adsorbing any remaining odorous gases. In the design for the Urban Death Project, biofilters and mechanical ventilation are used to aerate the process and ensure that no trace of odor is emitted.
+ What about the bones?
Research into mortality composting shows that bones fully decompose, although they do take longer than the flesh to do so. We are currently working to determine the exact amount of time it will take to turn a whole human body into soil, including bones and teeth.
+ Will soil created by Recomposition be used to grow food?
No. The soil that is made from the bodies of the deceased will be used to nourish trees, flowers, and memorial gardens.
+ How does religion fit into all this?
The Urban Death Project fills a niche, providing an alternative method for the disposition of the dead designed for the density of the city and envisioned on a neighborhood scale, and it was initially designed for the millions of people for whom traditional religion is not a guiding force. That said, the architecture of the Urban Death Project will include space for those of any faith to gather, pray, and mourn. And since founding in 2014, we have spoken to many religious leaders who believe that Recomposition is an appropriate choice for their faith.
It is important to note that 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. Quite simply, for many, this option will be deeply spiritual – an ecological, productive, and beautiful thing to do with our physical bodies after we have died.
+ What are the details of the ritual?
For all of human history, people have created rituals to give meaning to the treatment of dead bodies, whether they are burned, buried, or left for scavenging animals. In the past, these rituals helped ground us in the grieving process, and they allowed us to fully partake in one of life’s most pivotal moments - the death of a loved one. Yet for many Westerners, the methods we have available today - and whatever remains of the rituals that accompany them - sorely lack meaning. Over the last few hundred years, the practices surrounding death have been diluted by societal changes and usurped by the American funeral industry, now a $20 billion dollar/year venture.
The currently accepted methods for the disposal of the dead have come to us almost accidentally - part historical convention and part funeral industry mandate. Yet they do not have to be our only options. Just as the surge in home births illustrates the reclamation of death’s sunny counterpart, so the rise in popularity of hospice, living wills, and green burials tells of our desire to reclaim our death experience. There is a growing trend in home funerals, with celebrants assisting families of the deceased in caring for their own after death. And there is a movement afoot to own our own deaths and to simplify them, as well as to make them more sustainable. As a conscious, thoughtful society, we have a responsibility to craft solutions that support a reconnection with the care of our dying, encourage the acceptance of death as part of the natural life cycle, and bring beauty and significance to a most difficult time.
Recomposition is one such solution. The act of laying one’s loved one to rest within an Urban Death Project will be a ritual much like the act of burying one’s loved one in a conventional cemetery or sprinkling the ashes of a cremated loved one is a ritual. However, for many, Recomposition will have much more meaning than those options, as it will connect both the deceased and the grieving to the cycles of nature by allowing the dead to play an active role in healing the earth and its soil.
The ritual of Recomposition includes the optional washing and wrapping of the body with the assistance of supportive staff, the procession carrying the body up three stories to the top of the core, and the covering of the body with wood chips. Depending on the wishes of friends and family, the ritual may also include music during the procession, prayers or words as the body is covered, and a gathering (like a memorial service or funeral) to mark the passing of the deceased. For some, the ritual will include returning to visit the place where their loved one has been recomposed. The finished soil will be available for use by the neighborhood, and a loved one taking away a container of the soil would be a natural extension of this ritual. Finally, some may want to visit the parks and gardens where the soil is used to grow new life.
In general, there will be guidance for families on how they may ritualize the passing of a loved one, and they will also be encouraged to modify or create their own as they desire.
+ What about natural burial?
Natural burial, where bodies are buried (unembalmed and often without a casket) in a natural setting is a lovely alternative to the conventional. However, natural burial is a decidedly rural option, and the Urban Death Project is focusing on the urban setting.
+ How will you overcome the stigma of "dead bodies in my yard"?
In the end, we leave behind our bodies. And what happens to them makes most of us squeamish. But the truth is that without decomposition – the process by which organic material is broken down to support new growth – we would not exist at all. The bodies we leave behind aren’t just shells of our former selves, rather, they are full of potential – nitrogen, water, calcium and phosphorus – the building blocks of nutrient rich soil.
We will overcome the stigma of “dead bodies in our yards” through education. Dead bodies are all around us, in cemeteries and mausoleums. We believe that given the chance, people will embrace the idea of soil that has been created from the bodies of our neighbors. The idea of being folded back into the urban community where we have lived, and of helping to heal the earth by doing so, is very powerful.
+ How can I help?
Tell your friends, your family, and your networks about this exciting new option in death care that we are developing. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed of our progress.
And please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our work. You can even make the gift in honor of someone you love. Thank you.