Katrina Spade wants death in good company.
In 2013, Spade, then an architecture student at UMass Amherst, began to think about being dead—not the act of dying, but being dead. A corpse, remains. Until then, death had lingered in the abstract. She knew it would come someday, but only after she became a parent did the resounding reality come into focus. “I blame my kids,” she told the Independent, “I realized I was going to die someday.”
Spade calls me from Seattle. On the phone she is cheerful, eager, and excited to discuss a subject that most would shy away from. Once she began thinking about death—or, rather, the act of being dead—she realized there might be a different way to do it. An architect with a keen sense of environmental impact, Spade is aware that commonplace methods of burial bear substantial constraints. Traditional in-ground burial is limited by space, while cremation is energy intensive and pollutes the air, so much so that the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency requires an air pollution control permit. Neither process is sustainable, especially in the urban environment in which Spade hopes to design. The way she sees it, the “main purpose of architecture is to support us as human beings.” This mission extends past our individual lifetimes to the impact that our bodies, and how they are dealt with after death, will have on our descendants.
Intent on shifting how burial is envisioned in urban settings, Spade devised the Urban Death Project. Despite its alarming name, the project is quite innocuous. The concept, currently a prototype in development, was to design a space in which human remains would be composted, each body eventually transformed into a bag of nutrient-rich soil. In her words, the architecture of the facility “will create a space to comfort the grieving.” Not only would the space be feasible within an urban landscape—think vertical rather than horizontal structure—but much like a graveyard, it would be a carefully conceived environment in which the living could commune with the dead. While other burial methods are still very much in practice, Spade’s project hopes to address the issues of urbanity—in this case, a lack of space in graveyards and a need for increased environmentalism.
Spade’s project garnered attention early on in its inception. While the idea of composting remains isn’t a new one—animal remains are frequently composted at farms and in the wild, and human remains have been allowed to decompose back into the soil for centuries—the architectural significance of the space, as well as its urban setting, brought new possibilities to the natural death movement, in which bodies are buried in the ground without any barrier between corpse and soil. In 2014, the project was awarded the Echoing Green Climate Fellowship, which funds promising social entrepreneurs, giving Spade the capital needed to increase testing while developing a prototype. Once the prototype is completed, Spade’s hope is for cities to use the design to create their own Urban Death facilities. Since the interior of the space is where the composting occurs, external architectural decisions would be left up to the city in which the space would be constructed. She compares the space to a library branch: each city would receive a basic template for the facility while still being granted full autonomy over the execution of the project. This would allow cities to make decisions on scale, location, and organization. The structure of a UDP facility is functionally akin to any other composting device; it is three stories, tall and narrow, and easily nestled in a city block. Before bodies are added, the core is filled with woodchips. Much like a garden compost heap, the core relies on heat and a particular ratio of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. As Spade described it, the success of any composting system is “all about creating an environment.” Once the ratio is balanced, microbes break down the body. “Nitrogen acts as a flame, creating heat which fuels the microbial action,” she explained. Over the next two weeks, the body makes its way through the structure, blending with the contents of the core (woodchips and other human remains) and emerges as soil at the bottom. Instead of an urn of ashes, families are presented with a bag of soil. The soil created by a human body is rich in nutrients; indeed, those same nutrients that act during life continue to exist after death. In the soil, they fuel new plant growth—integral parts of an ongoing system. And in an urban setting, that bag of soil can be used to grow a garden or to plant a tree. Either way, the remains will be recycled back into the system, rejoined with the natural world.
In the city, death lacks presence beyond the moment of dying. Deaths happen in homes, in hospitals, on the street—but whatever happens to the body afterwards is far removed from the public eye. The markers of the dead seen in urban spaces are crammed, tight for space. Take, for example, the raised cemeteries in New Orleans, rows of above-ground mausoleums in a square city block; or the sprawling but packed cemeteries of Brooklyn and Queens. Though the process of burial in the Urban Death Project’s core is scientific and necessarily precise, Spade’s vision for the space is deeply rooted in the concept of ritual. The space commands reverence, both for the dead, and for the act of nature occurring within the core. After death, the body can be refrigerated for roughly a week; no embalming chemicals are used as these would counteract the composting process. On the day of the burial, those closest to the deceased wrap the body in a shroud before carrying it to the top of the core, where they proceed to perform what is dubbed by Spade the “laying in,” the moment of farewell between the living and the dead.
Spade doesn’t have much convincing to do. “The momentum has surprised me,” she says. Frequently she receives emails from individuals wanting to know how they can ensure that their remains be composted in a UDP facility. At this point, they can’t. A prototype of the facility is set to be built at Western Carolina University, and only in 2020 does she hope to break ground on a full facility. Spade’s work does not ignore the historical precedent of natural burial. Spade examined the composting practices farms use, becoming an expert on the composting of human and animal remains. Every so often, she travels to North Carolina to test the three bodies composting there as part of her partnership with WCU. She checks temperature and smell, allowing nature to carry out its processes uninterrupted. When I ask Spade what her own death intentions are she answers without hesitation: “I want to be composted.”
The tradition of dying and rejoining nature is not a foreign one. In America’s rural areas, natural burial—where a body is simply buried in the soil—is feasible. In fact, the natural burial movement has a following in the U.S., South Africa, Germany, China, Japan, Australia, and the UK, where places like the Tarn Moor Memorial Woodland in North Yorkshire, England offer on their website: “peace & tranquility resting in beautiful countryside.” Many natural burial sites fall on conservation land, helping to mark the space as one designated for nature and natural processes. The practice of natural burial shares the essential characteristic of Spade’s project—the bodies are composted—yet the practice doesn’t face the space constraints of urban environments. The website BeATree.com is entirely devoted to the practice, advertising the merits of the “Back-to-the-Land Movement.” Though not at the forefront of the current dialogue, other forms of natural burial have been in practice for centuries. In Buddhist regions of high altitude and extreme cold—Mongolia, Ladakh, Bhutan, and parts of Nepal—the body is regarded as an empty vessel with no need for preservation. As a result, remains are left exposed to the elements in what is known as a “sky burial.” Birds and other animals feed on the remains, and anything left uneaten decomposes into the soil. In the Parsi Zoroastrian tradition in India, circular raised structures called Towers of Silence hold the dead. Corpses are seen as unclean, and are left to be excarnated by vultures.
You are not alone
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the corpse often leads a solitary existence. For those that choose in-ground burial, death is an experience separate from family, friends, and neighbors. Sometimes grave markers are shared, but coffins are side by side, a thick wall between each of our embalmed selves. In 2013, 48.7% of Americans chose burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. However, the rate of burial is rapidly decreasing. Since 1960, cremation rates have increased twelve-fold, from 3.6% in 1960 to 45.4% in 2013. By 2020, the NFDA estimates 71% of Americans will choose cremation, while only 23.2% will choose burial. The remaining six percent of the population choose other routes. If cremated, bodies are often spread in places where they are alone and can be memorialized alone; bodies are socially and ecologically isolated.
Much of Spade’s work aims to counteract the desire for isolation among those that would typically choose burial or cremation. Mankind has allowed the process of death to become chemical, she argues, and not in the natural sense, in the attempt to immortalize our flesh with embalming fluids. One of the most frequent questions Spade receives: will the family of the deceased receive solely the remains of the deceased in the form of soil? “No,” she answers, “you will receive a mixture, remains from multiple composted bodies.” In her response, she stresses the aspect of transformation that occurs during the composting process. Spade’s point here is that the emphasis on individuality is unimportant. During life, humans are integral parts of nature and the way it operates; yet they often fail to realize this. When someone dies and chooses UDP, he or she is given the opportunity to dissolve back into the natural system of decomposition and growth. Each body can fuel the environment around them. The project isn’t trying to redefine death; rather, as Spade sees it, “we need to realize that we are part of the natural world when we die. We decompose, turn back into the natural world. This project is all about embracing that.”
For some, the idea of being composted along with up to thirty other corpses is, well, undesirable. Dying and being memorialized gives individuals something they rarely get during life: complete and utter attention. Loved ones, distant friends, vague relations gather. Stories are shared, eulogies read. Strengths are commemorated, quirks embraced, accomplishments touted. For an hour or an afternoon, each individual is at the center of his or her world (and, regrettably, not there to experience it). If living a complete life is an accomplishment, as seems to be the prevailing attitude in the United States—a marker of good health, success, even prosperity—then a proper funeral or memorial is a celebration. But being buried alongside others understandably removes some of the occasion of dying, as the moment must be shared with the deceased decomposing inside the same structure.
Burials in the United States are not a bargain affair. Coffins cost in the thousands of dollars—the NDFA estimates $7,045 as the median price of a casket funeral, on top of the cost of a plot, a service, and a meal for the mourners. Yet, the process of memorializing appears almost antithetical to a nice coffin or urn. When loved ones devise a celebration of the life of the deceased, writing down and reading memories and accomplishments, that is the end of life. The relationship between the soul and the body varies on a cultural and religious basis. However, as a physical being, space-taker, and mass consumer of natural resources, the human body is a product of the earth. If the visceral reaction is one of disgust, think of this: by returning a body back to the earth, letting it become soil to fuel new growth, that body is partaking in the greatest celebration of life, allowing it to go on even after, or if, the spiritus leaves.
The UDP website opens with the lines: “Because death is momentous, miraculous, and mysterious.” Perhaps it is those qualities of death that frighten so many of us: the ultimate shift, removal from life. As populations move into cities, stacking themselves atop one another, reducing the space they can claim, the living must reconsider notions of togetherness, of social engagement, of environmentalism. If our actions in death reflect those of life, lay me into the core, sprinkle my soil in a plot on a sunny city block, make me a lemon tree.
JULIA TOMPKINS B’18 produces sweet lemons.