The Urban Death Project is the brainchild of Seattle-based designer Katrina Spade, and it has the potential to revolutionize the way we deal with our dead. This week, Spade launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise the funds to make her dream of a gentler, ecologically friendly human burial a reality. We talked with Spade about the Urban Death Project and her hopes for the future of the death industry.
ViralNova: What is the Urban Death Project?
Katrina Spade: The Urban Death Project is a new system that utilizes the natural process of decomposition to gently turn our deceased into soil. The project is creating a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative to existing options for the care of the dead.
At the heart of each Urban Death Project facility is a three-story core containing our unique, compost-based renewal system. Bodies of the deceased are placed inside this core by their friends and families during a ceremony. Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, bodies decompose fully, creating a rich soil that can be used to grow new life.
ViralNova: What specific problem is the Urban Death Project trying to solve?
KS: Every day that we are living, we take in nutrients from the world around us. When we die, our physical bodies are full of potential, and we can give those nutrients back to the earth.
The problem is that our current funeral model is toxic and polluting. Two and a half million people die each year in the U.S., and 50% choose conventional burial. This means that most often, their bodies are embalmed and then buried in a casket in a concrete-lined grave in a cemetery.
Because of this, each year, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Cremation, the other most popular choice, burns fossil fuels and emits about 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That”s the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving on the road for a year!
In other words, the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it. We believe we can do much, much better!
ViralNova: How did you become involved with the Urban Death Project?
KS: The Urban Death Project began as my thesis project in graduate school for architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In July of 2014, I was awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship. I turned the project into a 501c3 organization and began working on it full time.
ViralNova: What do you see as wrong with the way that Americans approach and handle death in the modern era?
KS: In Western society, the idea of death is feared and often denied. The modern era has led us to sterilize our livesfrom using anti-bacterial soap to trying to hide or prevent aging with creams and surgery. We”ve distanced ourselves from death in the same way.
We at the Urban Death Project believe that death is a remarkable human event. Our bodies are full of life-giving potential. There is deep meaning in giving back to the earth after we have died. Every person has the right to sustainable, meaningful deathcare.
Today, the average conventional burial costs $10,000, and the average cremation costs $3,000. A $20 billion for-profit funeral industry operates within a deeply flawed business model which requires the up-selling of needless consumables to people who are grieving and vulnerable.
We are excited to create a new model of deathcare that is community led, sustainable, and deeply meaningful.
ViralNova: What would you say to those who maybe doubt the potential or feasibility of what you”re looking to accomplish?
KS: Fifty years ago, people thought that cremation was a very weird idea. Just 3.5% of Americans were cremated in 1960, while today, that number is almost 50%. In Washington State, where I live, the cremation rate is almost 70%.
This trend points to the desire for more options in deathcare, and it also shows that something that can be considered strange can grow to be the norm quite rapidly.
The Urban Death Project is about creating another option for our bodies when we die. It”s mostly about meaningif you find meaning in conventional burial, then by all means, conventional burial is the right choice. But there are so many people who don”t find the existing options personally relevant. This project is for them!
ViralNova: What does the future look like for you in a world where the Urban Death Project has accomplished its goal?
KS: I envision a world with Urban Death Project facilities in many neighborhoods in every city in the world. There are millions of ways that Urban Death Project facilities could look and feel, each designed by a different architect to support the living, honor the dead, and illuminate the incredible fact that we humans can grow new life after we”ve died.
ViralNova: What communities and cities are you and the team thinking of testing the project in? Have any places expressed an interest?
KS: Seattle may be the first city, but I think that San Francisco, Vancouver, and Portland are also pretty great contenders. I”d love to see an early prototype in Los Angeles or New York, because those cities could really benefit from creating spaces where nature is honored. And if Chicago, New Orleans, or Toronto called, that would be great.
ViralNova: What”s next for the Urban Death Project?
KS: We are raising funds to complete the second phase of design of our unique core composting system, and partnering with human decomposition researchers to test the process.
VN: Is there anything else that you”d like to share with our readers?
KS: Our Kickstarter Campaign launches March 30 and runs until May 13! We are so incredibly excited to share the project with the world this way (and we think our reward offerings are pretty great, too).
Learn more about the Urban Death Project on the foundation”s website. Don”t forget to pay a visit to their Kickstarter page and donate if you”re interested in their approach to deathcare. You can also stay updated on their work at their Facebook and Twitter pages.