Death is natural, but modern burial is definitely not: Every year, more than 90,000 tons of steel and 4 million acres of trees are used to build coffins in the U.S., and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde is used in embalming, so bodies can't naturally decompose. Cremation requires a heavy dose of fossil fuels.
Even when we're dead, most Americans keep adding to our carbon footprints. Can the rituals around death be redesigned to become more sustainable?
With her Urban Death Project, designer Katrina Spade has been working on a greener alternative for the last three years. Along with the environmental issues, the design also considers the problem of space—cemeteries in the U.S. take up about a million acres of land, and as populations grow, even more space is needed. Spade wanted to find an answer that would allow people to be buried in cities.
The design uses composting to turn bodies into soil-building material for nearby farms and community gardens, so people literally become part of the city they once lived in. A four-story building, which Spade envisions being built in neighborhoods across a city, would serve both as composter and a place for ritual, where family members could see the deceased person for the last time. The composting process would take about thirty days.
Spade admits that the idea might not appeal to everyone, particularly those who want to follow a religious tradition. "Death is a very personal thing," she says. "However, there are many people who are aware that the current options are sorely lacking and who long for an urban solution that better connects us to our loved ones and to the earth."
Beyond wanting a more sustainable option, she says that many people are unhappy with the funeral industry in general. "I have had dozens of conversations with people who felt confused, pressured, and disrespected after an experience with the funeral industry. Whether or not everybody is ready to be composted, it is time for new options in the way people are treated after death . . . An $11 billion funeral industry is in charge of what should be a deeply personal experience."
Earlier this summer, Spade won an $80,000, two-year fellowship from Echoing Green to work on the project full time and build her first prototype in Seattle. Once she proves it there, she'll be looking for a location to launch a full-scale-version.
Ultimately, she hopes to create a toolkit so that other communities can build their own. "I like to compare it to a library system, with numerous branches in each city, all designed for the neighborhoods in which they reside, all tailored to the local population," she says.
Spade continues: "I definitely think that the system could be successful in almost any city worldwide, as long as there are people for whom the idea of turning back into soil after death is appealing."