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One Seattle Designer's Idea: How About Turning Your Remains Into Compost?

Katrina Spade
Urban Death Project
Mourners are seen carrying the dead in this illustration.

What if after you die, your remains were turned into compost?

That’s the idea behind the Urban Death Project, which aims to introduce a new burial option in urban areas.

The idea is to bury the body in between layers of woodchips and sawdust and let it decompose into “rich humus" that can seed new life, says Katrina Spade, a designer and project founder. The approach, says Spade, could help ease soil degradation and reduce the carbon footprint of existing options. 

“Our bodies have potential in them even after we’ve died," said Spade, who hopes to build a prototype in the Seattle area.  

How It Works

At the center of Spade’s vision is a building that houses a central core three stories tall. It is at the top of this core that the deceased will be laid to rest naturally — without embalming and shrouded only in linen — in between layers of high-carbon material.

Credit Katrina Spade / Urban Death Project
Urban Death Project
The gray square illustrates the core at the center of the building. A screw conveyor at the bottom pushes the remaining compost out to the grove.

The decomposition process will produce heat, killing off pathogens. And the woodchips and sawdust will break down any odorous gases, getting rid of any smells.

As the remains fully decompose over the next 28 days, they’ll compact down inside the communal core, creating room for new remains above. At the bottom of the core, a screen will filter out any remaining objects before a screw conveyor pushes out the created compost into an outdoor grove. Loved ones can eventually take away some of the resulting compost for their home gardens.

“It’s setting up a space where our bodies are put in and the finished product comes out. None of us are left on the site,” Spade said.

Borrowing The Science Of Livestock Composting

The approach may sound crass to some, but the science is not new.

The carcasses of large farm animals are disposed of this way through mortality composting. The animal is placed in between two to three feet of high-carbon material, making for a heap that “allows oxygen to circulate through the pile while maintaining moisture and containing odors,” according to researchers at Washington State University.

Credit "On-Farm Composting of Large Animal Mortalities" / Washington State University
Washington State University

As microbes break down the carcass, the internal temperature of the pile will spike as high as 170 degree Fahrenheit. After several months and several turnings of the pile, the animal’s soft tissues and small bones will have fully decomposed, and the larger bones that remain will be soft enough to break.

“The final compost product should have no trace of tissues or unpleasant odor,” according to WSU researchers.

Adapting The Practice Of Natural Burials

Then there are natural burials, which, as Spade puts it, takes the science of mortality composting and tailors it for "a human experience."

Credit Katrina Spade / Urban Death Project
Urban Death Project

At The Meadows in Bellingham, Washington, the deceased are buried with only biodegradable and nontoxic materials; not even metal fasteners for caskets are allowed, let alone embalming fluids.

"It's a values-based choice that people make," said Brian Flowers, general manager of The Meadows.

The plots are twice the normal size to ensure the remains are never disturbed, says Flowers. The deceased is buried on a bed of high-carbon material four feet underground where microbes thrive.   

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. - Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself, Part 52"

Even without the metal vault that typically encases caskets in traditional burials, Flowers says odor is not an issue.

“Anything that has 18 inches of soil covering it is not going to have any detectable aroma coming from it, and we’re covering at least 36 inches and more from the burial mound,” Flowers said.

The grounds aspire for a natural aesthetic free of regular irrigation, fertilization and mowing. Loved ones are invited to plant trees, shrubs and groundcover on the premises. 

Adding A Healing Space For The Living

Spade, who herself is drawn to the idea of a natural burial, wants to adapt the model for urban dwellers.

“I like clean, modern spaces as much as the next person, but I think there’s something beautiful about decomposition and nature taking over,” she said.

Credit Katrina Spade / Urban Death Project
Urban Death Project
This illustration shows the interior view of the core.

But the disposition of the body is only half of the equation for Spade, who hopes the space she creates fosters healing for the living.

She envisions family members, with the help of a death midwife, washing and dressing the body, then eventually laying the body in the core. The idea is to have the family take the lead instead of a funeral director. It models after the existing practice of home funerals.

Nora Cedarwind Young, a Bellingham-based death midwife who assists in home funerals, says she has witnessed times over the healing power of family involvement.

“One time, this woman and I were washing her husband’s body. And she starts laughing and crying, laughing and crying, and eventually I didn’t know which she was doing,” Young said. “She finally said, ‘It’s been more than a year since I’ve been able to touch him without him crying out in pain.’ It was the most beautiful thing.”

‘We Can Be Productive One Last Time'

Credit Katrina Spade / Urban Death Project
Urban Death Project
This rendering shows an idea for an ad.

Spade, a recipient of the two-year Echoing Green Climate Fellowship, is currently working with a Bellingham-based engineering firm to finalize the core’s design. She’s also seeking funding to build a prototype, which she hopes to complete in the next three years. Eventually, she’d like to see an Urban Death Project building in every city, each one designed by a different architect.

Spade realizes the option won’t appeal to everyone or even the majority. Her aim isn’t to convert anyone or to turn a profit, but to introduce a new option to those who, like herself, aren’t moved by the existing choices. 

“I just think it's an absolutely beautiful idea that we can be productive one last time," she said. "When we die, we could [help] create new life."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story called Spade an architect instead of a designer. Though she has been trained in architecture, Spade has not yet taken the Architectural Registration Exam to become a licensed architect.