My name is Katrina Spade, and I grew up in a medical family where it was fairly normal to talk about death and dying at the dinner table. But I didn't go into medicine like so many of my family members. Instead, I went to architecture school to learn how to design. And while I was there, I began to be curious about what would happen to my physical body after I died. What would my nearest and dearest do with me?
So if the existence and the fact of your own mortality doesn't get you down, the state of our current funerary practices will. Today, almost 50 percent of Americans choose conventional burial. Conventional burial begins with embalming, where funeral staff drain bodily fluid and replace it with a mixture designed to preserve the corpse and give it a lifelike glow. Then, as you know, bodies are buried in a casket in a concrete-lined grave in a cemetery. All told, in US cemeteries, we bury enough metal to build a Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single family homes, and enough formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools.
In addition, cemeteries all over the world are reaching capacity. Turns out, it doesn't really make good business sense to sell someone a piece of land for eternity.
Whose idea was that?
In some places, you can't buy a plot no matter how much money you have. As a result, cremation rates have risen fast. In 1950, if you suggested your grandmother be incinerated after she died, you'd probably be kicked from the family deathbed. But today, almost half of Americans choose cremation, citing simpler, cheaper and more ecological as reasons. I used to think that cremation was a sustainable form of disposition, but just think about it for a second. Cremation destroys the potential we have to give back to the earth after we've died. It uses an energy-intensive process to turn bodies into ash, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. All told, cremations in the US emit a staggering 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. The truly awful truth is that the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it.
It's like we've created, accepted and death-denied our way into a status quo that puts as much distance between ourselves and nature as is humanly possible. Our modern funerary practices are designed to stave off the natural processes that happen to a body after death. In other words, they're meant to prevent us from decomposing. But the truth is that nature is really, really good at death. We've all seen it. When organic material dies in nature, microbes and bacteria break it down into nutrient-rich soil, completing the life cycle. In nature, death creates life.
Back in architecture school, I was thinking about all this, and I set out on a plan to redesign death care. Could I create a system that was beneficial to the earth and that used nature as a guide rather than something to be feared? Something that was gentle to the planet? That planet, after all, supports our living bodies our whole lives.
And while I was mulling this all over over the drawing board, the phone rang. It was my friend Kate. She was like, "Hey, have you heard about the farmers who are composting whole cows?" And I was like, "Mmmm."
Turns out that farmers in agricultural institutions have been practicing something called livestock mortality composting for decades. Mortality composting is where you take an animal high in nitrogen and cover it with co-composting materials that are high in carbon. It's an aerobic process, so it requires oxygen, and it requires plenty of moisture as well. In the most basic setup, a cow is covered with a few feet of wood chips, which are high in carbon, and left outside for nature, for breezes to provide oxygen and rain to provide moisture. In about nine months, all that remains is a nutrient-rich compost. The flesh has been decomposed entirely, as have the bones. I know.
So I would definitely call myself a decomposition nerd, but I am far, far from a scientist, and one way you can tell this is true is that I have often called the process of composting "magic."
So basically, all we humans need to do is create the right environment for nature to do its job. It's like the opposite of antibacterial soap. Instead of fighting them, we welcome microbes and bacteria in with open arms. These tiny, amazing creatures break down molecules into smaller molecules and atoms, which are then incorporated into new molecules. In other words, that cow is transformed. It's no longer a cow. It's been cycled back into nature. See? Magic.
You can probably imagine the light bulb that went off in my head after I received that phone call. I began designing a system based on the principles of livestock mortality composting that would take human beings and transform them into soil.
Fast-forward five years and the project has grown in ways I truly never could have imagined. We've created a scalable, replicable non-profit urban model based on the science of livestock mortality composting that turns human beings into soil. We've partnered and collaborated with experts in soil science, decomposition, alternative death care, law and architecture. We've raised funds from foundations and individuals in order to design a prototype of this system, and we've heard from tens of thousands of people all over the world who want this option to be available. OK. In the next few years, it's our goal to build the first full-scale human composting facility right in the city of Seattle.
Imagine it, part public park, part funeral home, part memorial to the people we love, a place where we can reconnect with the cycles of nature and treat bodies with gentleness and respect.
The infrastructure is simple. Inside a vertical core, bodies and wood chips undergo accelerated natural decomposition, or composting, and are transformed into soil. When someone dies, their body is taken to a human composting facility. After wrapping the deceased in a simple shroud, friends and family carry the body to the top of the core, which contains the natural decomposition system. During a laying in ceremony, they gently place the body into the core and cover it with wood chips. This begins the gentle transformation from human to soil. Over the next few weeks, the body decomposes naturally. Microbes and bacteria break down carbon, then protein, to create a new substance, a rich, earthy soil. This soil can then be used to grow new life. Eventually, you could be a lemon tree.
Yeah, thank you.
Who's thinking about lemon meringue pie right now?
A lemon drop? Something stronger?
So in addition to housing the core, these buildings will function to support the grieving by providing space for memorial services and end-of-life planning. The potential for repurposing is huge. Old churches and industrial warehouses can be converted into places where we create soil and honor life.
We want to bring back the aspect of ritual that's been diluted over the past hundred years as cremation rates have risen and religious affiliation has declined. Our Seattle facility will function as a model for these places all over the world. We've heard from communities in South Africa, Australia, the UK, Canada and beyond. We're creating a design toolkit that will help others design and build facilities that will contain technical specifications and regulatory best practices. We want to help individuals, organizations, and down the road, municipalities design and build facilities in their own cities. The idea is that every one of these places should look and feel completely different with the same system inside. They're really meant to be designed for the neighborhood in which they reside and the community which they serve.
The other idea is for supportive staff to be on hand to help families with the care and preparation of loved ones' bodies. We're banishing practices that bewilder and disempower and creating a system that is beautiful and meaningful and transparent. We believe that access to ecological death care is a human right.
OK, so you know the old saying, if you can compost a cow, you can compost a human?
Turns out, it's true. Since 2014, we've been running a pilot project in the hills of North Carolina with the Forensic Anthropology Department at Western Carolina University. Six donor bodies have been covered in wood chips, oxygen provided by breezes, microbes and bacteria doing their jobs. This pilot program has allowed us to demonstrate that it's possible to harness the incredible power of natural decomposition to turn human bodies into soil, and we're working with other universities as well. Soil scientists at Washington State University, the grad students, anyway, are working to compost teeth with amalgam fillings so that we can understand what happens to the mercury therein. Next up, we'll be beginning experiments to determine what happens to chemo drugs and pharmaceuticals during the composting process, and whether additional remediation will be needed.
By the way, composting creates a great deal of heat, especially this particular type of composting. One week after we began composting our fifth donor body, the temperature inside that mound of wood chips reached 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine harnessing that heat to create energy or comfort the grieving on a cold day.
The death care revolution has begun. It's an exciting time to be alive.