The Urban Death Project: Bringing Death Back Into the Urban Realm

We speak with Katrina Spade, founder of the Urban Death Project, about Recomposition Centers, urban community centers where the deceased can decompose into soil.

Images Courtesy Urban Death Project


Traditional burial is an inherently problematic exercise—not only are we fast running out of land, particularly in our growing urban centers, but it’s also remarkably bad for the environment. Cremation, which burns fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide into the air, isn’t much better. Surely there must be a better—and potentially even more poetic—way to dispose of our bodies when we die? Enter: Katrina Spade of the Urban Death Project. We first came across Spade’s work whe she was announced as a Fuller Challenge finalist last year. Spade proposes the creation of Recomposition Centers, where humans can lay their loved ones to rest and back into nature. We spoke with Spade to learn more about these centers, how they could change the fabric of our cities, and why sustainable death care is more important than ever.

VQ: Most people don’t know about the $20 billion funeral industry. Can you explain the environmental impact of traditional burial/cremation?

KS: I began researching the funeral industry and found out it’s a $20 billion industry. It serves 2.6 million people every year and provides two main options. The first is burial. That usually involves being embalmed, being buried, buying a headstone. The second is cremation, which is rapidly becoming more popular, in part because people think it’s more ecological. But cremation burns fossil fuels and contributes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It destroys the body’s potential to give back to the earth. I was shocked to find out that both options are polluting and wasteful.

We have an incredible ability to deny death in this culture. This industry benefits from that denial. It can charge more and provide less if we don’t think about things until the end, when we’re in a vulnerable position.

And then there’s the built environment itself. We have funeral homes, which are fine I guess, but they are sort of dowdy, maybe old-fashioned. Cemeteries have historical meaning, but don’t necessarily resonate today, and way too often they’re not accessible as parks. Crematories are built in industrial areas, and are not meant for family and friends to experience, at least not in the U.S. Couldn’t we have something more beautiful, more meaningful, and more exciting? To mark this important event of our death?

VQ: I imagine you researched these types of spaces. Did you come up with any guidelines for what makes these spaces successful?

KS: What I’m proposing is less a type of architecture and more a model for a type of programming—a place where we care for the dead and get closer to nature at the same time.

I did research into places and spaces. Crematories in Northern Europe are just gorgeous. That in itself would be a great way to redesign the funeral industry, although it wouldn’t improve the environmental impact. Make crematory celebratory—not industrial.

I was also thinking about the types of spaces that need to be in these centers. I want to create a toolkit with suggestions, to get design teams thinking about light and dark, rooms with different qualities. To give design teams the opportunity to design what they think is right for grieving.

VQ: You propose something called Recomposition centers — can you explain what they are?

KS: I was in graduate school for architecture and thinking about these spaces, about our denial of death, and the way we care for the deceased. One hundred years ago, friends and family would care for bodies and bury them in their backyard. There was a lot of value placed on being close to the event of death.

I wanted to create a model where families and friends are given the opportunity to participate in the care of their loved one. In our model there is a shrouding room. Staff are trained to help, not take over. Families can take their time. Time is important aspect of death care that is often neglected. Time is crucial.

I wanted spaces that really encourage friends and family to participate—whatever that means for people, to give them that opportunity, which we don’t right now. The status quo is that strangers take the body away. It doesn’t need to be that way.

Then, after I understood the problems of the industry, I was thinking about designing spaces that would connect us with both death and nature. That’s important to grieving. Two of my favorite influences were the Chapel of St.Ignatius, by Steven Holl, in Seattle. And Peter Zumthor’s Baths Vals. These are two different types of architecture, but I could imagine Recomposition centers in the style of each.

At the same time that I was thinking about grieving, and nature, and death acceptance, a friend told me about research being done around the composting of livestock. Basically, returning a body to the earth using the microbes and bacteria that are all around us. So, I designed a system that would transform us from human into soil via composting. And that system, that idea, became recomposition. A system that uses principles of mortality composting, but that is appropriate for urban centers—which is where we most desperately need a change—and respectful of the experience. It should follow scientific principles, but be built for people.

The form is vertical, as land-use is a problem with cemeteries. We want small footprints. So it’s about 3 stories tall. We have to get the deceased to the top of this 3-story core. We do that by giving the living the opportunity to carry the deceased three stories to the top. That necessary action becomes a framework for ritual, one born from practicalities. I like that a lot. The second piece is to have the bodies laid on top, onto the wood chips in the core and then covered with wood chips. That starts the process of decomposition. It’s about giving your loved one back to nature.

VQ: Let’s get into the practicalities of the center. One thing that wasn’t clear to me was the timeline. How many people are buried at a time, how long is the decomposition process, etc.? Would you be burying your loved one on top of another’s?

KS: I never call it burial. I set it apart from the idea of burial. It’s recomposition. As in to recompose something, like music.

The way the core is set up, its interior is made up of about a dozen—and this is scalable—vertical bays that are adjacent to each other, these make up one “core.” They system can support one deceased in the morning and one in the afternoon. That’s a human consideration, not a technical one. That’s how much time we need to celebrate the deceased, to mark their death with ceremony.

So, you could use Bay 1 in the morning. In the afternoon, you could put a body in Bay 2. One body per bay. Between the bodies are about 4-6 feet of wood chips. There’s no co-mingling, each body is separated by several feet of material. And it’s an ongoing process. Each body slowly moves downward as it’s turned into soil. It’s like you’re settling into your new existence…no longer human, now you’re soil.

VQ: You mention the potential for Recomposition centers to be situated in repurposed urban infrastructure. Why is that important? How is nature incorporated?

KS: A small percentage of people aren’t buried traditionally or cremated, but have something called natural burials. It’s a beautiful idea where bodies are buried shallowly, without a casket, allowing them to decompose more quickly. But that’s not really an efficient solution for urban centers. That takes up a lot of land, which is why these are usually in rural settings. That’s not going to work for the 50% of the population that live in cities.

One of the things I started thinking about, back in the beginning, was what exactly is nature? We often associate it with trees and parks and plantings, but I got obsessed with the idea that the basis of all nature is decomposition. It’s soil. That’s the basis for all life on earth. Organic material decomposes, and that’s how we have new life. Many cultures, not just ours, are afraid of decomposition and decay. But that is what life is all about. So recomposition centers, on a basic level, will bring nature into city, through the creation of soil, via decomposition.

All Recomposition centers will have four things in common. The first is the core system, which transforms bodies into soil. The second is the staff, who are trained to support the grieving as they return their loved ones to the earth. The third is the building, the place that supports the programming. Depending on the climate, the system could be out in the open air, but there will always be a building to support the programming: the place where staff meet with families, etc. And fourth is the garden space: every Recomposition Center will have gardens growing from soil that is created on-site. When nature comes into the city via Recomposition gardens, then it becomes a place of memorial. You can feel close to that deceased person as you sit in the gardens year after year.

I have always been very excited about these centers being urban. I’m not a rural person at heart. The idea of being folded back into my urban community after I die is very powerful to me.

VQ: How do they potentially upend the environmental impact of the funeral industry?

KS: First of all, our system will eliminate the occurrence of embalming fluid, which is literally poison going into the ground. Right now, eight Olympic sized swimming pools worth of this formaldehyde-based fluid go into the ground every year. Recomposition eliminates the metal and concrete that is buried in cemeteries from caskets and grave liners. In the U.S. we bury enough metal in cemeteries to build the Golden Gate Bridge every year. And our systems eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions created through the manufacture and transport of gravestones, grave liners, and caskets. Finally, it eliminates the resources needed to keep cemeteries looking pristine, mowing the grass and watering the lawns.

Since cremation rates are rising so fast, the real environmental savings will come from choosing Recomposition over cremation. This will prevent a lot of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere. The current calculations are around 600 million pounds annually. That’s the equivalent of driving 70,000 cars on the road for an entire year. And finally, Recomposition causes carbon sequestration, adding to the positive impact it has on climate change.

What’s more, you create ecological wealth with recomposition. Instead of being cremated or buried, bodies are transformed into nutrient-rich soil. Recomposition is the only urban-based disposition option that actually creates ecological wealth. We each only have one body…at the end of your life wouldn’t you rather give it back to the earth that’s supported you all of your life?

VQ: This is obviously a pretty taboo topic, and a big part of your proposal is well-designed posters with clever phrases. What kind of branding or marketing effort do you think would be necessary to offset the uncomfortable nature of the project?

KS: That’s what’s exciting: the conversation! And it’s something we are doing now, even before we’ve built our prototype or opened our first Recomposition center. Outreach, communicating the environmental harm, promoting discussions about end of life, disseminating educational material, that’s a huge part of our mission. Because, believe it or not, we’re all going to die someday. It’s true! And yet people don’t talk about it. It’s important and we don’t do it enough.

On a personal level, I’m having such a good time with the design. I love to incorporate humor and thoughtfulness into the marketing whenever possible.

VQ: What about the legal ramifications of these centers? Are they legal? What would have to change to make them so?

KS: We are working to change policy, so that Recomposition can be implemented in whichever communities have interest. Right now, how the body can be cared for after death is regulated on a state-by-state basis. So, we have to legalize it on a state-by-state basis – we can’t just amend one federal law to change everything.

There is precedent for other methods of disposition becoming legal. Some states have recently legalized alkaline hydrolysis, a newish form of disposition. Adding recomposition to the list of approved forms of disposition is a huge part of our strategy, obviously.

VQ: Are there any plans to make your first recomposition center?

KS: Our big next step is to build a prototype of the system in Eastern WA, at Washington State University. The university’s soil science department will run a pilot program, so that we can prove our system and refine our protocols. We’ll also be able to answer questions like, exactly how long does recomposition take? We are estimating 4-6 weeks based on what we know about livestock mortality composting, but we don’t know precisely.

When that’s done we’ll design a full-scale recomposition center for  the city of Seattle, and make our system available to the broader public. Seattle is the perfect place for the “flagship: it’s residents are environmentally thoughtful, interested in pushing the envelope, and also, the people are a little bit dark.

After we’ve opened the first Recomposition center in Seattle, the plan is to create a toolkit to help the system get implemented in cities all over the world. We’ve had interest from cities like Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, and Johannesburg.

VQ: How has this project impacted you personally?

KS: Overall it’s given me more appreciation for being alive, honestly. I think about death and death care all day every day.There was an adjustment period. But overall, it’s been really positive. It’s not only increased my appreciation of life, but imparted the realization that life is short.

The Buckminster Fuller Institute is now accepting applications for the 2017 Fuller Challenge. Apply here.

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