Preserving the Environment

Can Americans Accept This Environmentally-Friendly Burial Method?

May 5, 2016
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Can Americans Accept This Environmentally-Friendly Burial Method?
Katrina Spade, founder and director of the Urban Death Project, monitors decomposition progress at Western Carolina University's human decomposition facility in Cullowhee, N.C. Photo by Mike Belleme for The New York Times
The Urban Death Project has designed a facility that composts human remains into usable soil.

Katrina Spade isn’t afraid of death; in fact, the 38-year-old Seattle designer has spent the last five years of her life preparing for it.

Not that Spade has received a bad prognosis or expects an accident to happen anytime soon. But she’s been thinking about her end-of-life decisions because she feels the environment itself is on life support. Spade started seriously contemplating death while in architectural school, because her interests in urbanism and greener living seemed to conflict with our nation’s contemporary burial practices: the use of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, thick steel and wooden caskets and crematoriums that spout carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Laying 2.6 million Americans to rest every year, she came to realize, is a for-profit industry that didn’t give much thought to sustainability.

In the most ambitious plan yet presented by the Green Burial movement, Spade designed a facility to compost human bodies into reusable soil. Known as the Urban Death Project, the modular building can be erected in every major metropolis, reining in demand on overcrowded urban cemeteries and providing an eco-friendly option for city-dwellers. Spade has attempted “to create a system that can take our bodies, which are — even when we die — full of potential and don’t need to be burned or buried away” and transforms them, she explains. “What I designed is not just a system that will turn bodies into soil. I actually thought about that for a while: Am I trying to do something that can be inserted into existing funeral homes, like a crematory has, and keep doing things the way we are doing now? I right away realized that’s just a piece of it.”

Spade’s expansive vision involves a new kind of facility, “a secular sacred space” which she imagines would sit on a forested city block. Its interior would resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan (a nautilus-shaped spiral), but where the museum features an open rotunda at its center, Spade’s building would house a 24-foot vertical tower, inside which bodies would compost over several months. Until recently, the concept was theoretical, but Spade recently held a design session with architects, engineers and a compost expert to design a prototype that will be built in the next nine months and run by Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a crop and soil scientist, at Washington State University in Pullman.

“The bodies we leave behind aren’t just shells of our former selves; they are full of potential – nitrogen, water, calcium and phosphorus – the building blocks of nutrient-rich soil,” Spade has written. “The truth is that without decomposition – the process by which organic material is broken down to support new growth – we would not exist at all.”

A rendering of a funeral taking place inside an Urban Death Project facility.Courtesy of The Urban Death Project

Intended to delay the decomposition process for a public viewing of the body, embalming (which fills the body with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and other chemicals) may cause lasting environmental harm, as chemicals eventually seep into graveyards and, potentially, groundwater supplies. (Morticians themselves are also put in harm’s way: a 2009 study found funeral workers and anatomists had a heightened risk of dying from myeloid leukemia, presumably because the repeated exposure to formaldehyde.) While less toxic, the same principle applies to the other accoutrements of funerals: between coffins and urns, we build entire cities underground that are only seen for a moment at the open graveside.

“The typical 10-acre swath of cemetery ground,” writes Mark Harris in his 2008 book “Grave Matters,” “contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. To that add a volume of embalming fluid sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer to keep the graveyard preternaturally green. Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body’s toxic cache escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and groundwaters. Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed.”

Spade first stumbled onto the environmental damage inflicted by the funeral industry during grad school, as she tried to answer a simple question: “What happens to my body after I die?” Around the same time, almost by chance, a friend called her up and asked her if she knew that ranchers composted entire cattle carcasses, which had died due to age, weather or certain diseases. A native of rural New Hampshire who’s now a committed urbanite, Spade’s innovation involved modifying that agricultural process into a way to dispose of bodies in the cramped landscape of a city. (She, of course, plans to use the process once it’s completed, although she adds, “I think once I’m dead, I really won’t care.”)

Working with a team at Western Carolina University, Spade and the researchers are currently testing the composting process outdoors with five human cadavers. They want to figure out which materials (like wood chips) speed up the decomposition process. Spade compares the process to lighting a fire in a wood stove: one needs to figure out the right amount of kindling, logs and oxygen to achieve the greatest heat. (Like the fire, decomposition rates are also measured by temperature: more heat is a sign of microbial activity.) If conditions are right, after six weeks, she expects the bodies will be fully composted.

For most, it takes a mental leap to agree and swallow the implications of the Urban Death Project. Spade, however, takes comfort in that admission, believing there’s new potential to be unleashed through a person’s final choice. “During the process, we cease to be human. I mean scientifically, we cease to be human. So what’s being created is not remains: it’s not ashes (which are actually often bone fragments, crushed up, and some ash); it’s not the bones in a casket. We move on from being human into a part of the natural ecosystem,” Spade says. “I find that both to be kinda magical and comforting to me.”

That belief helped her through a personal loss two years ago, when her maternal grandmother passed away at age 92. With family gathered around her bedside, Spades’s grandmother appeared to be drifting off to sleep. At one point, Spade recalls, she opened her eyes and asked, “What do I need to do to make this happen?” Some family members laughed. They squeezed her hand and told her, “You’re doing the right thing.” Nobody knew what came next for her grandmother, but Spade believes it’s such an intimate part of being human that we shouldn’t be frightened by its eventual arrival. “It was kind of miraculous,” she says. “Time really slowed down for those days [at her deathbed]. All we were doing was waiting for this huge, unknown thing to happen. It’s a little like being in labor, honestly. You don’t care about what’s going on in the outside world, because everything is focused on this transition.”

She continues, “I want people to know that there’s a lot of potential for us, as living people, to kind of gain from being close to the event of death. That’s one thing that the Urban Death Project is trying to do: give us a closer, more nuanced understanding of that event.”

Spade knows full well that not everyone will agree with her, and she doesn’t waste any breath trying to convince anyone to sign up. Once the prototype testing is underway, Spade expects more people will join the growing movement.

Increased interest wouldn’t be surprising, considering Americans have altered our burial practices before. Modern cremation chambers were slow to catch on, yet today, more than half of the dead are cremated. Presumably, we, as a society, can overcome any revulsion to the idea of being composted and will wake up to the environmental benefits it holds. From dust we were created, the Biblical passage goes — but with Spade’s plan, unto dirt we will return.

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