Putting a Green Spin on the Grim Reaper

The Urban Death Project wants to make dying more sustainable.
(Photo: Urban Death Project/Katrina Spade)
Sep 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Eating hamburgers contributes to your carbon footprint. So does dying.

Every year cemeteries in the United States bury more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, and 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laced embalming fluid. Cremation isn’t as bad, but it requires natural gas and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So Seattle-based designer Katrina Spade came up with a greener alternative: composting bodies.

“I was studying architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst,” said Spade. “I had two young children, and something about that time made me conscious of my own mortality. I realized that the two available options that we have—cremation and conventional burial—were environmentally harmful.”

For the past three years, Spade has been working on the Urban Death Project. The idea is to place bodies and high-carbon materials in a three-story apparatus, where after a few months they’ll turn into compost that could be distributed to farms and gardens. (The system is designed to filter smell so that no odor will be emitted.) That way, people would literally become part of the environment.

“Most of the people I talk to find the project quite evocative, and for many it resonates deeply right away,” Spade said. “There are also those who double-take when I tell them what I’m working on but who warm to the idea once we talk about the current methods our society uses to dispose of our deceased.”

The average cost of a funeral is around $10,000, which many people can’t afford, Spade said.

(Photo: Urban Death Project/Katrina Spade)

Although she doesn’t know how much the Urban Death Project method will cost per body—Spade’s team is still engineering the system—she said that it will definitely be lower than current options, and that nobody would be turned away for lack of money.

As for burial rituals, loved ones will be able to say good-bye to the deceased inside the facility before the body is placed in the composting apparatus.

Spade’s project leaves some morticians mortified.

“That is not a dignified approach for the disposition of a loved one who has passed away,” said Dennis Murphy, who sits on the Washington Funeral Directors Association’s board of directors. “There are practitioners out there for those families that find themselves on a tight budget. You might have to shop around a little bit, but it’s easily accomplished to economically provide a proper disposition of your loved one’s body.”

Then there’s the safety question.

“Years of research into livestock mortality composting has found it to be a very effective and sanitary way to dispose of animal carcasses,” Spade pointed out. “The process of composting creates a great deal of heat, and this heat kills dangerous pathogens.”

Echoing Green awarded Spade an $80,000 fellowship so she could build a prototype in Seattle. Once she’s produced a viable system, Spade will launch a full-scale facility.

It’s not yet clear, however, whether cities—where the system is designed to work—will allow such composting operations. But as many urban areas experience a shortage of burial grounds, the idea might not seem so far-fetched. In 2007, London passed a law that lets authorities dig up graves older than 75 years to make space for new ones. And price tags of burial plots in New York state have been skyrocketing. “Former Mayor Ed Koch may be among the last New Yorkers to be buried in Manhattan,” reported Bloomberg. “He paid uptown Trinity Church Cemetery $20,000 in 2008, five years before he passed away at 88.”

The Urban Death Project team is talking to the Washington Department of Ecology, according to Spade.

Nora Menkin, the managing director of Co-Op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial, a Seattle-based organization that aims to make burials and cremation affordable for families, told Seattle Weekly, “We recycle everything, why can’t we recycle ourselves?”

Still, Spade realizes that it won’t be for everybody.

“Death is a very personal thing,” she said, “and everyone should have the right to choose the method that is most meaningful to them.”