Dezeen Magazine

Katrina Spade's Urban Death Project proposes a composting facility for dead bodies

Seattle-based designer Katrina Spade has developed a building proposal that offers an eco-friendly alternative to burying or cremating loved ones.

Called the Urban Death Project, Spade's proposal calls for a building in which dead bodies wrapped in linen would be placed in a three-storey core that contains high-carbon materials. The bodies would eventually decompose and become soil.

"The Urban Death Project utilises the process of composting to safely and gently turn our deceased into soil-building material, creating a meaningful, equitable and ecological urban alternative to existing options for the disposition of the dead," Spade explained.

"The project is a solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries, a sustainable method of disposing of our dead, and a new ritual for laying our loved ones to rest," she added.

Urban Death Project by Katrina Spade

Funerals would be conducted within the building, with relatives and friends of the deceased invited to wrap the body in fabric and oversee its placement within the composting area.

"Those closest to the deceased meet the body in the shrouding room, where they wrap it in simple linen," said the designer. "Supportive staff are on hand to assist in this process."

Mourners would then gather at the top of the core, where the wrapped body is placed. "Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a rich compost," the designer said.

The body could be refrigerated up to 10 days before the ceremony takes place.

"There is no embalming because decomposition is an important part of the design," said Spade.

"It is disrespectful both to the earth and to ourselves that we fill our dead bodies with toxic fluid before burying them in the ground," she added, noting that 750,000 gallons (2.8 million litres) of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid are used annually in the US.

Urban Death Project by Katrina Spade

Composting, rather than burial or cremation, is a more environmentally responsible method for handling dead bodies, according to Spade.

Each year, more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood (nine million metres) and 90,000 tons (81,600 metric tons) of steel are used to make coffins for US cemeteries.

Additionally, 17,000 tons (15,400 metric tons) of steel and copper and 1.6 million tons (1.4 million metric tons) of reinforced concrete are used for American burial vaults.

"Cremation is a less wasteful option, but cremation in the US emits approximately 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide (272 million kilograms) into the atmosphere annually, which is the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving the road for a year," Spade said.

"The more options we have to ecologically and gently care for our dead, the better."

The system is particularly relevant in cities, where populations are growing and burial space is limited.

"Everybody is impacted by death, but people in urban areas and poor people are especially affected by a lack of burial space and the expense of conventional disposal methods," she said.

"It is not a viable option, nor desirable, to have our bodies pumped with toxic chemicals, wrapped in raw materials, and buried in an individual plot where they take up precious arable land."

Urban Death Project by Katrina Spade
Concept diagram

Spade hosted a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to raise money for the project, and more than 1,200 people contributed a total of $91,000 (£63,000).

The designer has also received financial support from Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding for projects that promote social change.

Spade's Urban Death Project nonprofit organisation – which has a board of directors and board of advisors – is continuing to raise funds to conduct research and build a prototype.

"This organisation aims to fundamentally alter the way that we in Western society think about death," said Spade.

"Its goal is to undo the over-commercialisation and needless distance we have created between ourselves and this inevitable human event."

Urban Death Project by Katrina Spade
Section – click for larger image

Spade – who holds a master's degree of architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst – has focused her career on "creating human-centred, ecological, architectural solutions".

Prior to graduate school, she studied sustainable design and construction at the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Vermont and earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

During her graduate studies, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build a compost heating system – a project that led to her idea for the Urban Death Project.