From Compost to Compost? Katrina Spade could be racially changing after-death landscape around the world

Did you know that right here, in the Great Northwest, we have a young woman who could be radically shifting how we do after death care around the entire world? Her name is Katrina Spade; and she is a builder and designer who has a remarkable vision: A case for “sustainably” composting your dead body!

I learned about Katrina while attending an informal workshop in Quilcene on Green Burials. I learned a great deal about some new trends that are emerging around after death care in America. The most radical and profound Project I learned about is the Urban Death Project that Katrina is spearheading – right here in our own backyard! Katrina was able to raise upwards of $94,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Here are some statistics sited in an article on the Urban Death Project in CBC News:

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 over half of the world’s population live in cities. City cemeteries are rapidly filling up to capacity; and currently, green burials are not available for most 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!

So, says Spade, her idea is a “practical one.” (For more, see this link.)

I had some questions that I wanted to ask Spade herself, but she is so busy that she referred me to some articles about her and her Project. I decided to share some questions and answers that she gave the Imprint Culture Lab in an interview on October 6, 2014. You may see the entire article here.

As a kid, what did you aspire to be?
As a kid, I thought I’d probably become a doctor, since so many of my family members are in medicine. We had plenty of conversations about death and dying at the dinner table. I guess it makes sense that I am doing this work, but from a design perspective. I love this work, but it definitely never occurred to me that I’d be doing this when I was young.

Describe how you “concepted” Urban Death Project to solve a significant problem in burial sustainability.
I was in graduate school for architecture, and I’d been thinking a lot about how decomposition is generally feared and avoided in our culture. Without decomposition – where microbes break organic materials down into soil – we humans would be toast. It’s an amazing process – turning dead stuff into soil – and I began to think about how it might intersect with architecture. At the same time, being thirty-something, it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually going to die someday. I began researching the options we have for the disposal of our physical bodies, and I found that both conventional burial and cremation are wasteful and polluting processes. So I set out to design a new method, using the process of composting as a basis for the design.

Where do you personally find inspiration?
I am excited about the work being done in my community right now around prison abolition and the dismantling of immigrant detention centers. Talk about an amazing design challenge – envisioning a world without prisons or borders!

Permaculture and whole systems design are also passions of mine. Beautiful design – the kind that is elegant in its simplicity and completely accessible – inspires me.

Where do you hope to take Urban Death Project in the long run, after the successful prototype?
Right now, we are working on the design and engineering of the system that will compost bodies, and we plan to build a prototype in the next few years. At the same time, we are creating a franchise kit to help others – municipalities, individuals, and organizations – build Urban Death Projects in their neighborhoods in cities all over the world. We’ll provide the specifications of the system itself as well as a framework for ritual and the programming requirements for each building, and different architects will design each Urban Death Project. That part is very important – each project should be specifically designed for the community which it serves.  I liken it to a library branch – each is unique to its neighborhood but you know what to expect when you enter one.

Katrina did answer one of my questions personally. The question: How can people get involved in your Project if they so desire? What is your most urgent “Message” to the world today?

Right now, the three best ways to get involved are:

1) Sign up for our monthly newsletter here.

2) Donate funds at whatever level is doable/meaningful to you.

3) Tell your networks about the idea, and talk with your friends and family about your wishes around death.

Here’s a little more about Spade’s background and credentials:

Spade has focused her career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions. Prior to architecture, 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 inspire 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.

Welcome to the Changing World around death and after death care!

Maria will be facilitating another one of her classes – on transitions and the essential oils – on April 14 at 5:30 PM at the Brilliant Moon. For details and to register, call: 360-868-2190.