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A Prototype for a New System of Composting Human Remains

The Urban Death Project is building a structure at Washington State University where human remains will be transformed into soil.

Rendering of the Recomposition Center for the Urban Death Project (courtesy Katrina Spade)
Rendering of the Recomposition Center for the Urban Death Project (courtesy Katrina Spade)

A proposal to turn human remains into soil as an alternative to current funerary options is approaching reality. The Urban Death Project is currently crowdfunding its prototype, with a potential launch planned for spring 2017.

“A big question for us has to do with the duration: how long will it actually take for a human being to transform into soil?” architect Katrina Spade, founder and director of the nonprofit, told Hyperallergic. Last year, when we covered the initiative, the project was in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that ultimately raised over $90,000. Since then it has gained increasing momentum, placing among the five finalists for this year’s Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge and organizing a legal, architectural, and scientific team.

The full-scale prototype of the project’s Recomposition Center will be created in partnership with the Soil Science Department at Washington State University (WSU). The college already has a livestock composting program — a method of processing animal remains with high-carbon material — and the Recomposition Center will initially involve cows from WSU’s dairy school as well as pets from the veterinary medicine program. “We want to assure that the prototype is working, then we’ll invite human donors,” Spade said.

Illustration of the Recomposition Cycle (courtesy Katrina Spade)
Illustration of the recomposition cycle (courtesy Katrina Spade)

Humans, unlike other animals, often have more toxic medical histories, whether from mercury in tooth fillings or treatments like chemotherapy. These factors can complicate the composting process, requiring experimentation with aeration, pH balance, hydration, and general design. What’s more, although farms usually aren’t lacking for horizontal composting space, “no one that I know of has ever designed a vertical composter before,” Spade said. “We’ve always been interested in thinking about this system that is vertically designed so it takes up less land. If the problem we’re trying to solve is that every person in the world can’t have their own grave, it makes sense to go vertical. And that lent itself to ritual, which was born out of getting dead to the top of this core.”

In the current design, friends and family will be able to participate in a ceremony to physically place bodies at the top of the Recomposition Center. If estimates are correct, they’ll be able to return just over a month later and receive the rich soil made from the body, as well as other people interred around the same time. The departed person then becomes new material, ready for a garden, tree planting, or another second life.

Rendering for the Urban Death Project (courtesy Katrina Spade)
Rendering for the Urban Death Project (courtesy Katrina Spade)

Of course, another hurdle is the legality of the Urban Death Project. Death laws vary on a state-by-state basis, but Spade cites the precedent of alkaline hydrolysis, or “water cremation,” which is now legal in about a dozen states. Although what we consider the “traditional” process of embalming, coffin, and cemetery interment is relatively recent, going back only to the 19th century, it has become entrenched.

This is tied, in part to religion; consider the Vatican’s recent statement that it cannot “condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration.” Yet the Urban Death Project joins a swelling movement of those reconsidering death through design, such as the Death Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, which proposed a “Sylvan Constellation” that would hover above a cemetery by using biomass to power lights, and artist Jae Rhim Lee, who created a mushroom burial suit.

For many people, the carbon dioxide impact of cremation and the high costs and toxic pollutants of embalming are not what they want for their final statement on this planet. As Spade puts it: “When you really get down to it, it’s about consumer choice — don’t you want to be able to choose what happens to your body when you die?”

The Urban Death Project is crowdfunding its prototype through November 28. 

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