URBAN DEATH PROJECT
The Urban Death Project is developing Recomposition, a compost-based renewal system. At the heart of the system is a three-story core, within which bodies and high-carbon materials are placed.
Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a nutrient-rich soil.
Recomposition is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature.
The deceased may be stored in a refrigerated space for up to ten days before the ceremony takes place. There is no embalming because decomposition is an important part of the design.
Those closest to the deceased meet the body in the shrouding room, where they wrap it in simple linen. Supportive staff are on hand to assist in this process.
Mourners enter the facility and walk up to the top of the core where they say goodbye to the deceased at the laying in.
At the top of the core, friends and family lay the body into the core and cover it with wood chips.
Over the next few weeks, the body decomposes naturally, including the bones, and transforms into a nutrient-rich soil. The process is continuous - new bodies are laid into the system above as finished material is extracted below.
After about a month, a beautiful soil has been created, and is ready to nourish new growth.
Outside, friends and family enjoy gardens nourished by the soil created from loved ones. This soil is sacred, both its past and its potential.
Loved ones are encouraged to take some soil back to their own yards and gardens. The soil is also used to nourish the site, and city parks use it to fertilize plants and trees. In this way, the dead are folded back into the fabric of the city.
How can I help?
Check out Digging Deeper for more information.
What is the project's mission?
Our mission is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative for the care of the deceased.
To do so, we're creating a holistic new model that is:
• Ecological: providing a disposition system wholly based on the natural cycles - a way to grow new life after death and celebrate our place in the natural world.
• Transparent: being clear with our services and pricing, providing an income-relative fee structure, and cultivating a culture of giving.
• Meaningful: acknowledging that death is an important part of life and supporting the grieving as they participate in all aspects of death care.
At the heart of this model is a new system of disposition called Recomposition, which gently transforms bodies into soil. It is replicable, straightforward, and elegant, removing the manufactured barriers between death and the natural processes of renewal. Environmentally, it is a vast improvement over the industry standard.
In our redesign of the funeral paradigm, these Recomposition systems are housed in community spaces that support the grieving as they return the deceased to the earth. Gardens are nourished from the soil created on-site, as the cycles of life are woven into the urban fabric and become part of the public consciousness.
What will Recomposition cost?
We don't know the exact cost yet, but it's our goal to have Recomposition cost less than the average cremation with a service. As well, we are cultivating a culture of giving to support a community fund so that Recomposition is available to all people who want it, regardless of economic status. Access for all is a very important part of our mission.
What is the problem the project is working to solve?
Current funerary practices have come to us almost accidentally—part historical convention and part funeral industry mandate—and they are environmentally atrocious. Each year, 2.6 million people die in the U.S, and most are buried in a cemetery or cremated, impacting land use and contributing to climate change. Wasteful, toxic, and polluting, these options undervalue the potential of our bodies and place an enormous strain on the environment.
When left to the status quo, the last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it.
The current funeral system also fails to provide people with the support they need in times of grief. This $20 billion (U.S.) industry depends on the sale of needless consumables to vulnerable people, often turning what should be a meaningful event into a time of consumer confusion. Families struggling to make ends meet are often pushed into debt, and bodies go unclaimed when families cannot afford to bury or cremate them.
How is Recomposition different than the status quo?
The funeral industry is a broken system. Many aren’t prepared to choose how to dispose of a loved one’s body during their time of grief, and so they are pushed to choose the most costly and invasive option. The approach of this project is a bold departure from this status quo – never before have humans been "recomposed". Our work is inspired by the natural burial movement, a rural option that is respectful of both the human body and the earth. This project changes the way that we think about our bodies after death, to view them as part of the solution to our environmental crisis.
The Urban Death Project is a manifesto for a new model of death care. We believe that humans deserve better than a system that relies on the sale of needless consumables to vulnerable people. Our goal is to banish practices that bewilder and dis-empower, and create a non-profit model that is transparent and meaningful.
Why would I want my body to decompose?
Unless we are cremated or mummified, our bodies will decompose after we die. Being embalmed and placed in a casket and a concrete grave liner will delay the process, but only for a few weeks or months. We like the idea of facilitating the decomposition, so that our bodies can be part of the earth as soon as possible. We also like the idea that we can be productive and help solve our environmental crisis - even after we die.
How can I help?
Tell your friends, your family, and your networks about this exciting new option in death care that we are developing. Sign up for newsletters at our contact section to stay informed of our progress.
And please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our work. You can even make the gift in honor of someone you love. Thank you!
What is the timeline for the project?
Our immediate next step is to build a prototype of the Recomposition system at Washington State University, and run a pilot program in collaboration with the Department of Soil Sciences. We are raising funds RIGHT NOW for that endeavor, so please check out our donation page and consider helping us with this work.
Once we've run our pilot, we will design and build the first full-scale Recomposition Center in the city of Seattle. We're also creating a toolkit so that organizations, individuals, and municipalities all over the world can design and build their own centers.
We hope to open the doors to the first ever Recomposition Center by 2023.
Do you have an Annual Report?
We sure do! Our Annual Report highlights the work done in each of our focus areas as well as specifics about funds raised and how we allocated those funds. Thanks to everyone who donates to the Urban Death Project, we are transforming the future of death care.
Press inquiries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Proof of Concept:
Concept and Background:
The Future of Death Care:
Katrina Spade is the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting. Katrina has focused her design career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions. Prior to architecture school, she studied sustainable design and building at Yestermorrow Design Build School, with a focus on regenerative communities and permaculture. While earning her Masters of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build and monitor a compost heating system, a project which helped initiate the Urban Death Project. Katrina earned a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College, and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is an Echoing Green Climate Fellow.
TECHNICAL ADVISORY TEAM
Brian Gix is a 26 year Seattle resident originally from Oregon. He grew up the son of an engineer, on a small family farm, and spent his summers on working on his uncle’s ranch in Northern British Columbia. He has served as a Seattle/King County Metro "Sounding Board" to provide citizen input in mass transit decision, and he is a Democratic Precinct Committee Officer in the 43rd district. Brian is a software engineer.
Brian's passions include the environment and social justice. He is attracted to the Urban Death Project because it envisions not only a low impact, green return to the earth, but also because of its egalitarian non-profit nature. He hopes to one day be returned to the earth with his wife Shelly, and have his compost added to the urban forests of Seattle. He has two wonderful children who are active and empathetic.
Devon Knowles is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Seattle University School of Law, where she teaches a clinic representing incarcerated parents in child welfare proceedings. Prior to joining Seattle University, Devon worked with the Washington Appellate Project, representing indigent clients in the Washington Court of Appeals and Washington Supreme Court, and as a public defender for The Defender Association, representing individuals in criminal matters as well as in involuntary commitment proceedings and in child welfare proceedings. She has also served as a clerk for the New Jersey Supreme Court, focusing exclusively on death penalty cases.
Devon received her undergraduate degree in philosophy from New York University, graduating magna cum laude. She received her juris doctorate from Columbia Law School, where she was named a Kent scholar and awarded the Charles Evans Hughes Human Rights fellowship. Devon was born and raised in Alaska, and has worked for environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and Oceana.
Erin Gainey is a small-scale philanthropist and co-founder of Seattle Design Foundation, an organization which helps local, emerging creatives through grants and mentorship programs. She studied Book Arts at Mills College, has a background in publishing at various houses in the Bay Area and has done extensive event work with the West Coast based party planning company The Adventure School. Born and raised in Seattle, Erin spends time with her young family exploring the British Columbia's Inside Passage. In addition, she is trained as an astrologer, and is interested in how the universe can help us manifest our internal and external energies.
Kate is a partner in HELM Construction Solutions, which works with owners, designers and builders to create high performance and sustainable buildings and businesses. She is an experienced leader in the fields of green building, professional education, sustainability, and business management. She’s worked with established and emerging businesses and non-profits to achieve triple bottom line metrics, develop business systems, and plan for a dynamic and resilient future. She has deep experience in post-secondary education, and led the Yestermorrow Design/Build School for over thirteen years. Her design and planning expertise includes a foundation in regenerative design principles and master plan development. Kate helped to develop and is a facilitator for NESEA’s BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines program. Kate is the Chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee, and serves on the Board of the Urban Death Project and the Advisory Board of One Square World. She is a QuickBooks Certified ProAdvisor. She holds a MS in Management from Antioch University New England and a BA in Anthropology and Environmental Science from Haverford College.
Nora Menkin is the Managing Funeral Director for The Co-op Funeral Home of People's Memorial, the only not-for-profit cooperative funeral home in the United States. With a background in home funerals, Jewish traditions, and a passion for natural burial and modern funeral practices, Nora started as an intern with The Co-op when it opened its doors in 2007. She became a licensed funeral director in 2009 and was named Managing Funeral Director in 2013. Nora holds her B.A. from University of California, Santa Cruz in Theatre Arts.
Troy Hottle has a PhD in Sustainable Engineering from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. His research focused on optimizing the end of life treatment of biopolymer wastes via composting from an environmental and economic perspective as well as developing various methodologies for evaluating environmental impacts. Troy’s experience includes researching the possible application of manufactured soils using residual industrial products, neighborhood-based environmental assessments for vacant land, and developing standard procedures for the evaluation of project sites for the organization.
Troy is currently an ORISE Postdoctoral Fellow at the US Environmental Protection Agency in North Carolina researching the integration of life-cycle thinking and energy systems modeling. He is Permaculture Design Certified.
Alan Maskin is an owner and principal of Olson Kundig – an award winning, Seattle-based design firm. For over two decades he has focused on the design of museums, installations and exhibition projects including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, Microsoft Cybercrime Center, The Frye Art Museum, and the Bezos Center for Innovation. His current work includes a museum about words in Washington, DC and an 80,000 square foot rooftop park in Dongdaegu, South Korea. Maskin is also leading the research project, Rooftop 4: The Fifth Façade, a conceptual investigation into the transformation of the uppermost layer of cities.
Maskin’s work has been recognized by regional, national and international award programs, including several awards from the American Institute of Architects, American Alliance of Museums Media & Technology MUSE Award for Interpretive Interactive Installations, a SEGD Global Design Award, Northwest Design Award for Best in Commercial Design and he was a NIAUSI Fellowship winner.
In addition to his design work, Alan is overseeing the development of Olson Kundig’s creative production studio. He also co-directed and curated the firm’s experimental work space, [storefront] and its subsequent series of site specific collaborative installations around the globe called: Itinerant Projects.
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician in California. She founded the Order of the Good Death in 2011 with the goal of bringing the realistic discussion of death back into popular culture. Caitlin’s webseries “Ask a Mortician” and the Order website have led to features on National Public Radio, BBC, the Huffington Post, Vice, the LA Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Salon. She also co-founded the public engagement series Death Salon.
Her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, is a New York Times Bestseller.
Cheryl A. Johnston, Ph.D. is a board certified forensic anthropologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. She grew up in Asheville, N.C. and earned her doctoral degree at the Ohio State University in 2002. In 2005 she joined the faculty at Western Carolina University. Dr. Johnston has worked as a consultant in forensic anthropology since 1991 for numerous agencies including the Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Macon, and Clay County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Departments, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and numerous Ohio Coroner’s and Sheriff’s Offices. Her major interests in forensic anthropology are age and sex estimation and taphonomic processes, especially the effects of fire on bone. She directs the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory and Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST), one of only a few outdoor decomposition facilities in the world.
Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is an Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State University. Her primary areas of research and teaching are biologically intensive and organic farming systems, and beneficial plant-soil-microbial interactions. Because science and society evolve through collaboration, she also works with a broad array of scientists and farmers to understand and improve the carbon footprint of farming, nutritional quality of crops, soil health, and many aspects of sustainability. In addition to her work in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest of the US, she has conducted research and extension in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Max Page is Professor of Architecture and History at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the author and editor of eight books: The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (University of Chicago Press, 1999); The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (Yale University Press, 2008); Building the Nation: Americans Write About Their Architecture, Their Cities, and Their Environment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, co-edited with Steven Conn); Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Randall Mason); The Future of Higher Education (Routledge, 2011, with Dan Clawson); Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (Planners Press, 2011, co-edited with Tim Mennell); Campus Guide to the University of Massachusetts (Princeton Architecture Press, 2013, with Marla Miller; and Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). He is a recipient of fellowships from the Howard Foundation, Fulbright Commission, and Guggenheim Foundation. This past year he was a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, working on a book on the future of historic preservation.
Tanya D. Marsh is a Professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A graduate of Indiana University and Harvard Law School, Marsh is a licensed attorney in the State of Indiana and a licensed funeral director in the State of California. At Wake Forest, Marsh teaches courses in property and real estate transactions, as well as the only course in a U.S. law school on funeral and cemetery law. Marsh has been called "our nation's foremost academic scholar on the law of cemeteries and human remains" and is the author of The Law of Human Remains (2015), the first treatise on the subject in 70 years, and the co-author of the first casebook on Cemetery Law (2015). She is also the creator and primary author of The Funeral Law Blog and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.
We're grateful to be supported by Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding to innovators working to bring about positive social change.
We're thrilled to be working with the architecture firm Olson Kundig, who is lending their design expertise to the ongoing development of the Urban Death Project.
Our work is made possible thanks to support from Satterberg, a Seattle foundation working to strengthen our communities by promoting a just society and a sustainable environment.
Our work with Western Carolina University's Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt) helps us show that compositing is a safe and effective method of disposition for the deceased.
Katrina Spade at TEDx Orcas Island
Short explanation of project by Joseph Hader of Western Carolina University
Urban Death Project Kickstarter Video
This work is happening thanks to the generous donations of individuals like you. Thank you!
Website by Anna Petry
© Urban Death Project 2015