An Echo-friendly Death, Finally!

Pratima H

Once upon a time I stumbled upon an interesting phrase, which despite its supposedly Latin origins, sounded all Greek to me: Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice

It hints – Look around where a dead person lies, at what he leaves behind and you would know his/her legacy, imprints in life and the journey, in just a glance. Or something to that effect, I presume.

May be now is the moment when I finally grasp its full meaning. After an intense, mind-stirring, radically-refreshing chat with a woman who is trying to change the way we see and plan our impact on this world, post our deaths. It’s not a bad idea – once we are dead, our bodies can still be put to a better use, instead of serving as just a sad memory several feet under. Our bodies can be of some use to grow another flower, seed or may be even an-almost eternal tree somewhere. Won’t we be living and breathing beautifully that way, long after our temporary robes vaporize? Isn’t that a quixotic way to go back to Mother Earth and contribute to her life-giving soil?  May be that way our loved ones can cherish us in more poetic ways? May be then someone will come by and remember us by plucking a flower from a happy Eden and not by leaving one at a somber grave? Death, it seems, should not be the end of it all.

The last few years have allowed people to give a personal signature to death too and more people are taking interest and showing courage to confront what happens to their bodies after they are gone. The pre-mortem menu of the death industry is bursting at its seams and talking of diamonds, space flights, fire-rockets and what not today.

From Swiss companies that compress and super-heat cremated ashes to turn carbon into graphite under extreme pressure and heat and into a man-made diamond which can be worn by a adored kin; to firms helping people in saying Au Revoir with a theatrical fire-works night; ‘dying’ is slowly taking a new connotation. Now, people are listening to rockets for self- incorporating funeral ashes and stuff like Memorial space flights, and toying with new ideas like sending a small portion of ashes into space or to be orbited around Earth.

Suddenly cremation ashes are not a grotesque thought and maybe there is a short but happy feeling of romance in the way we perceive death, per se.

Saying Goodbye has just got a new and happy ring to it.

Amidst these changing notions and perception-shifts about Death, Katrina Spade is trying something even more radical, eternal and ground-breaking (pun-intended). Spade is the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting. She has been focusing her design career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions.

2est mossy headshotPrior to architecture school, she has 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 initiate the Urban Death Project. She has also earned a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College, a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is an Echoing Green Climate Fellow.

So what is she exactly trying to do with her architect’s hat and a romantic, down-to-earth heart? And why is this going to be embraced well when people are hard-wired into a certain ‘death-experience’ as per social mores, religious interpretations, medical science angles, family rituals and habits running deep and long for centuries now? Why would digging this idea not unearth unexpected legal, social, ethical surprises?

In short, what makes one believe that this is the best way to echo your life and presence beyond one’s body despite so many organ-donation options, cemeteries and sophisticated death services around? We ask her everything and Spade comes out flashing a brave smile, passionate answers and contagious confidence till the end and making the word ‘bizarre’ as beautiful and positive as it should ideally be.

Come, dig this.

Dying by living and changing into soil. Where did you get this bizarre idea from?

When you call it bizarre, I know it sounds a little odd. But the current options, from burial, caskets, embalming etc; are actually the bizarre ones in my opinion. In fact, when you assess them carefully, cremation is the least bizarre and works well for people of a certain faith. As to where this idea got infected in me, well, I have two lovely children and one day as I was watching them grow, it hit me that I am not going to be around forever. We are all going to die! We have to realize that fact. My family is not very religious in a certain sense and there are not many cultural drivers to that part – what happens to my body after I die? So that’s how I decided to explore this idea.

Tell us what the ‘Urban Death Project’ is actually trying to do and how is it an eco-friendly way to die?

Conventional burial is chosen by more than half of Americans today. Wasteful, toxic, unproductive, and expensive, this option undervalues the potential of our bodies. Each year, in US cemeteries, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. In addition, cemeteries in cities around the world are reaching capacity; the concept of owning an individual plot for perpetuity is deeply flawed and unsustainable. Cremation rates are rising fast, from 9% of Americans in 1980 to almost 50% today. This trend demonstrates an interest in alternatives options, but cremation adds to climate change and pollutes the air, emitting over 600 Mn lbs of CO2 annually.

The Urban Death Project is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature. Our mission is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological urban alternative for the care and processing of the deceased.

Have you seen or confronted religious arguments going against this?

Hindu and Zoroastrian religions have a non-decomposing dimension. Meanwhile, Christians, Jews and Chris-Looney-Flipbook-set-of-4agnostics seem to have an open ear to options. It is interesting how religion plays a large part of the decisions about death. I am sure every faith deserves their due respect but I personally believe that we are all the same, specially and more so, when/after we die.

What about the legal contours of this option?

Yes, in the US, the option for decomposition is regulated at State level and we are working on the side of State Legislatures adding this to other options as we progress.

Would it align well for someone who would rather donate an organ or the whole body for medical research or other relevant purposes?

Yes, it fits well there. Even if the whole body is donated and used, it can be decomposed. It is a form of recycling our bodies as I put it.

Why would it make sense in a world where there are all kind of death services mushrooming, and some of them – pretty expensive ones?

Well, we have dozens of options to choose from and all I am saying is this is another one. Not everyone should choose to be decomposed. I understand it is a very personal choice and feeling. So if someone wants to focus on a casket or a funeral service or a diamond or whatever, it is an individual choice and every person has the right to exercise this choice. Ours is a NPO and we fully stand with the individual idea of choosing what happens to one’s body after death.

The real estate of death has supposedly gone scant and vertically-stacked as resources deplete and lands grow scarce. How do you observe this perception that after our urban lives, even our deaths are being commoditized?

FUTURE-TREE-TEEWe, on our part, are not proposing to ‘sell’ the concept. It is not about turning into commodities. Our whole lives are a cycle of taking in nutrients from the sun, Mother Earth, nature etc. Imagine how beautiful it would be if we could give at least something back and be productive even after we are dead? We can be a memorial garden or a loving tree that stands tall, warm and beautiful. Imagine being a memory that is ALIVE!

How much footprint has been covered so far? Any plans for India?

This took initial shape during an architecture project when someone said I should look at it as more than a design exercise, as this seemed like a practical, usable design. At one of the programs in New York around Climate Change, the idea took wings. It is still in planning stages. If India is open to the idea and interested, why not? My goal is to perfect the system and make it easy for people, specially municipalities, to build apt facilities. My goal is to take it everywhere in the world, if possible and if welcome.

What is the most heart-touching conversation you have had in this journey so far?

I get to listen so many warm and beautiful stories and every time someone tells me their experience of remembering a loved one, it’s a lovely, hard-to-forget moment. Remembering loved ones is what binds every culture, country, faith no matter how different we think we are when it comes to treating death.

How much support is happening as of now?

The Urban Death Project is working with Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt) to further study the composting process as a safe and effective way of caring for the deceased. The work of the Urban Death Project is made possible by generous support from Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding to innovators working to bring about positive social change. Our Kickstarter campaign is showing the collective desire for a new option in death care. Pledges help us complete the second phase of design development of our unique composting system; and ever backer gets to choose a reward.


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