A shovel in the dirt

 

Written by Samantha Watson

 

When Katrina Spade was completing her Masters of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she began contemplating what happens to our bodies when we die.

 

It was around this time that her friend told her about livestock mortality composting, a process where animal carcasses are composted and returned to the soil. Spade began to wonder what would happen if we did something similar with humans.

 

Fast forward to a month ago, and Spade was giving a TEDx talk at Orcas Island about the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting.

 

The Core

Spade’s plan is to build a facility where families would bring their deceased and place them in what she calls the “core.” The core would allow bodies to be placed at the top of a tall chamber, where they would be combined with carbon-rich materials, moisture, and oxygen.

 

The carbon, combined with the nitrogen, phosphorous, and calcium in the body, would get broken down into a usable soil within a few months — bones and all. At the very bottom of the chamber, the new soil would be screened and cured to ensure that it was healthy enough to be reintroduced into the environment.

 

The Pilot

Spade already began a pilot program in 2014 with the Forensic Anthropology Department at Western Carolina University. Six donor bodies have been covered in wood chips and left to nature to study how they break down.

 

In addition to this pilot project, Spade has partnered with soil scientists at Washington State University, who are composting teeth with amalgam fillings to study what happens to the mercury therein. They also plan to study an array of things that might be found in the human body, such as chemotherapy drugs, to see how they affect the soil created.

 

The Prototype

The next step is to build a prototype of the core, and test it using animal carcasses. The Urban Death Project started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for a prototype on March 30, 2015 and within three months they successfully raised $91,378 with 1,218 backers.

 

With funding now secured and research underway, Spade hopes to break ground on the world’s first human composting facility in Seattle by 2022, near Washington State University. Her plan is to use this facility to test the process and create a template for other similar facilities all over the world.

 

Other Ideas

Another big goal of this project is to provide a space for families and communities to come together to celebrate life. The composting process, when done correctly, has little to no smell and creates a good amount of heat, which can comfort the mourning on a cold day. Spade hopes the heat also can be harnessed as a sustainable energy source.

 

So far, a lot of people have supported this project as an environmentally-friendly alternative to burial and cremation. It also would be a relatively cheap option, with each compost costing approximately $2,500.

 

According to the project’s website, each year we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes, and enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. Cremation also emits about 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, and gets rid of all the nutrients that could be contributed back to the earth.

 

“The very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it,” Spade said in a video on the site.

 

But though there is a lot of support, the project also has its fair share of criticisms. Most notably, many people fear that composting is disrespectful to bodies and many religious groups say it violates their beliefs. Another big argument against the project is that the composting process does not kill certain pathogens that could then be spread by the soil.

 

What do you think of this emerging trend? Let us know in the comments below.