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At death in the United States we are faced with two options: burial or cremation. While some outliers select donating their remains to science or green funerals, as of 2015, according to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association, the rate of burial is at 45.8% and cremation at 48.2%. Architect Katrina Spade is proposing an alternative, where through natural decomposition humans are transformed into soil.
“There’s a lot of meaning for me that my body, when I die, could become part of the natural ecosystem again,” she told Hyperallergic. The Urban Death Project is currently fundrasing on Kickstarter after three years of planning, including the support of an Echoing Green fellowship. As Spade explains, it “investigates the problem of our current funeral history from a design perspective” and “from a human experience perspective,” with a three-story core where bodies are placed on woodchips and sawdust and the composted soil containing their energy could be used to grow trees, flowers, fields of waving grass, or be returned to their urban environment to remain part of the community in gardens or parks. The idea is based in part on livestock composting which is practiced around the United States by farmers, where the nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium in bodies turn to soil when combined with high carbon material.
The Urban Death Project contrasts to the resources and toxic byproducts of burial, which places enough metal in the ground each year to build a new Golden Gate Bridge along with the hazardous embalming fluids, or cremation, which releases millions of pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
“I realized quite quickly that both of those are environmentally problematic processes,” Spade said, noting that it’s “kind of a bummer” that your last action as a human would be a “snub to Mother Earth.” Additionally, she was driven by the realization that neither cremation or burial had any personal meaning for her, and how in most instances Americans are totally handing off their loved ones’ bodies to strangers after death. “We could, and we have in the past, been much closer to the event of death,” she said, citing inspiration from the home funeral movement which encourages families to be more active in this final ritual.
Friends and families could attend and assist in ceremonies interring their loved ones in the Urban Death facilities, where the warmth of decomposition would make the core’s concrete exterior warm to the touch, a reminder of the human energy it contains. The idea is a little like the Zoroastrian “towers of silence,” where the dead were placed together and exposed to the sun and birds to sustain life, a practice still carried out in Tibetan sky burial. However, the Urban Death Project is more about continuing a connection to the dead in their communities, and celebrating that the last thing our human forms do — decompose (and yes, even the bones break down) — can have its own life.
The current fundraising for the Urban Death Project is focused on the development of its core system, and working out the questions of aeration and hydration in its compost-based renewal system, including the safety and odor control. While there would need to be legislative action for its success, as most states only allow the burial, cremation, or donation of bodies to science, there is a precedent for new options, such as alkaline hydrolysis cremation now being permitted by some states. Spade is aiming to build the first facility in her home city of Seattle, and her team will eventually develop a toolkit for use in other cities. In the future, she hopes to have an exhibition with architects and designers exploring what these individualized places might look like. While the idea of a body becoming earth might be radically different from the past century where embalming and caskets were all about preserving the integrity of a corpse, Spade is arguing that there is a way to have dignity for the deceased while offering a sustainable, meaningful choice.
The Urban Death Project: Laying Our Loved Ones to Rest is funding on Kickstarter through May 14.
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