Urban Death Project: A case for composting your dead body

Traditional burials and cremation are hard on the environment. CBC's The Current explores why you might want to compost a dead body instead.

After several weeks, mourners can collect soil for memorial garden

Several weeks after bringing the body to be composted at an Urban Death Project facility, the mourners would return to collect some of the resulting soil 'to grow a memorial garden or plant a tree.' (Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters)

Traditional burials and cremation are hard on the environment, but urban dwellers could soon have a new option for their bodies when they die – turning them into compost.

The thought of slowly degrading naturally sounds so peaceful and beautiful and pleasant.- Grace Seidel, backer of the Urban Death Project

The Seattle-based non-profit Urban Death Project is running a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter — to help cover the cost of the design of a system that will turn a human body into soil, through natural decomposition, within several weeks.

"I like to think about what happens to a body at the Urban Death Project facility being a lot like leaf litter on the forest floor," Katrina Spade, founder and executive director of the project, said in an interview Monday with CBC's The Current.

The business of death is pretty toxic. Which is why Katrina Spade has spent her architectural career trying to design a better ritual around burying the dead. She's interested in composting the human body, giving a new meaning to the idea of dust-to-dust. 27:29

Environmental costs of burial, cremation

According to the project, each year, in the U.S. alone, more than a million dead bodies are buried along with:

  • Enough metal to build San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes.
  • Enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Spade noted that more than 50 per cent of the world's population live in cities, and city cemeteries are quickly filling up to capacity. Green burials are not an option for many city dwellers.

Meanwhile, the most popular alternative to burial – cremation – emits as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as 70,000 cars driving the same length of time.

Given that, Spade says, her idea is a practical one.

It's one that appeals to Seattle resident Grace Seidel —among four people who have pledged at least $2,500 to the Kickstarter plan in exchange for the privilege of becoming one of the first to have their body composted at an Urban Death Project facility.

"The thought of slowly degrading naturally sounds so peaceful and beautiful and pleasant, I can't imagine wanting to go any other way," she told The Current.

Spade envisions an urban facility where people will be composted in a three-storey "core." When someone dies, family and friends will carry the person up a long ramp winding around it.

A typical four-hectare cemetery contains enough formaldehyde and other solvents to fill a swimming pool. ((CBC))

"And so there's something to me really beautiful about the living expending their own energy to carry the deceased to the top of this core, lay the body in wood chips and sawdust, and begin the transformation of that person from human to soil."

The system, based on those used to composting livestock, is designed to provide the right balance of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture to optimize natural decomposition. Spade estimates the whole process would take four to six weeks.

Not for growing food

At that point, the mourners would return to collect some of the resulting soil "to grow a memorial garden or plant a tree."

She doesn't recommend using it to grow food, as research hasn't yet been done to confirm that is safe. However, the Urban Death Project notes on its FAQ that temperatures during composting hit 60 C, which should be high enough to kill off most pathogens.

The project has been criticized by people who feel the process is disrespectful — but Spade disagrees.

Lots of hurdles still remain before the project can go forward. For one thing, it needs to raise enough money to build its first facility – something that Spade thinks will happen within the next 10 years. For another, laws need to be changed to make this a legal option for decomposing your body.

So far, Spade says, legislators in her own state of Washington seem open to the idea. She added, "I feel like the people really want this option."


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