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This Nonprofit Wants to Turn Corpses into Compost

Traditional burial is an unnatural process that uses a lot of land, and cremation releases carbon into the atmosphere—Katrina Spade thinks there's a better way to deal with dead bodies.
March 18, 2015, 3:00pm

No human bodies were composted to make this soil. Photo via Flickr user Mark

There are a million different ways to die, but only three ways to (legally) dispose of a body. You can be cremated, you can be buried, or you can donate your corpse to a medical school (the school will eventually cremate you, FYI).

With rare exceptions, those are the rules across Canada and the United States. But here on the West Coast, there's talk of a brand new (and, let's face it, totally granola) alternative. Katrina Spade is founder of a Seattle nonprofit that wants to add human composting to the limited list of possibilities. Apparently the right combination of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and microbes can break down a dead person in about six weeks.

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Spade's project aims to solve the waste problems associated with conventional burial, but she understands the idea freaks a lot of people out. "For some people it doesn't work, and that's OK," she told me. "I'm not trying to convince everybody in the world."

In traditional burial, bodies are drained of blood, injected with preservatives, encased in massive wood and metal coffins, then lowered six feet into concrete-lined graves where they ever-so-slowly putrefy. Spade's research shows 90,000 tons of steel, nine million meters of hardwood, and 1.6 million tons of concrete get buried every year in the US alone. Cremation is better for the environment, she says, but it still puts a whole bunch of carbon into the atmosphere.

"To many people, conventional burial makes less and less sense," she tells me. In addition to generating "nutrient-rich" gardening soil, Spade's Urban Death Project also addresses an awkward space issue. Big cities aren't making new cemeteries, which drives up the cost of plots. Composting is as affordable as it gets.

Spade first started thinking about dying while in architecture school a few years ago. At the time, she had two young kids and no religious identity to speak of. "I realized, like everybody else, I was going to die someday," she recalled. "I started to wonder what they'd do with my body when I die."

Spade says she decided to confront what she sees as a societal fear of decay, researching ways to turn people into soil faster, not slower.

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At first she looked into natural burial—a method that skips the formaldehyde, trades a coffin for light, biodegradable fabric, and places bodies at shallower depths to allow faster decomposition. This form of burial is allowed in a few states. "It's a beautiful idea, but more appropriate for a rural setting," Spade says.

Then she discovered the practice of composting dead livestock. "I didn't make up the idea of composting animals—luckily there's a lot of research on that," she explains. (Sure enough, you can find plenty of government literature on "livestock mortality management"). "We know we can technically compost a human—it's not a mystery whether it will work at all."

Spade is fine-tuning a three-story compost design that puts six- to 12-foot layers of compost material between the dead. Ceremonies would allow families to "lay in" their loved ones and cover them with wood chips. The soil they get back weeks later could technically contain other people.

This multi-compost thing is a big red flag for Spade's critics in both the US and Canada. "From my perspective, personally, human remains are deserving of a pretty high degree of respect," said Stephen Olsen, director of Royal Oak cemetery in Victoria. BC laws only permit individual burial and cremation. "To do any form of collective disposition, I don't think the public would find it acceptable."

Spade disagrees. "I'm kind of forcing the collective issue. You don't get back just your person—you're going to get back a really beautiful material, something you can use to memorialize the person you miss," she said. "We're all part of a collective ecosystem anyway."

In 2014, Spade received an $80,000 grant from a New York–based philanthropic organization to make the Urban Death Project a reality. She's also launching a Kickstarter in a few weeks, which, depending on a few factors, could see a real-life human compost built by 2020. But before all that happens, Spade has to battle a few lawmakers. "It'll be state-by-state, a lot of small campaigns," she said of the work ahead. "It's about telling people this is an option that works."

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