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When my father died, we cremated him.
We took his ashes, mixed them in dirt and planted a tree in our garden. This has meant more than burying his body in a coffin and placing a headstone because something living stands in his place. But this is purely symbolic, as ashes don’t help plants and trees to grow.
One of the hardest parts of someone you love dying is the knowledge that they will never be an active part of your life again. It would mean more than I could possibly say to use his remains to grow something.
Founded by Katrina Spade, the Urban Death Project is a Kickstarter that goes beyond cremation and burial to composting corpses, that they may be used to fertilize gardens.
Rather than using up resources in conventional burial methods, composting one’s corpse is a way for the deceased to remain a part of their loved ones lives, as well as give back to the fabric of the cities in which they lived.
Yet the beauty of composting the deceased goes beyond the utilitarian conservation of resources.
“One of the problems I found with both cremation and conventional burial,” Spade tells BTRtoday, “is that they are not very meaningful. Unless you’re Hindu [and cremation is mandated], or you just really like fire.”
Composting, on the other hand, takes a dead body and produces something beautiful. Moreover, it does so without wasting precious resources and space.
The composting process begins with up to ten days of refrigeration before the corpse is put into the “shrouding room,” where it is wrapped in simple linens while mourners can observe and reflect on the dead. This process is called “laying in.” There is no embalming, which defeats the purpose of intentional decomposition.
The body is then put in the “core,” essentially the composting chamber, and covered with wood chips from municipal parks and recreation. The process of decomposition can take several months. In the end, mourners can take the soil of the deceased and use it to plant trees, flowers, anything to help them remember their loved one. Some of the compost is also used for the Urban Death Project campus foliage, as well as parks throughout the city.
Using some of the compost for city gardens is part of Spade’s goal of creating a “burial” solution specifically tailored for urban centers that do not have space or resources for more full-body burials. The compost that results literally helps to nurture the city and its natural resources.
Though the Urban Death Project is not in the final stages and a detailed energy analysis and comparison has not been made, composting will certainly use fewer resources and energy than current methods.
According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, roughly 30 million board feet of hardwood, 107,000 tons of steel and copper, and 1.6 million tons of concrete are used for caskets and vaults each year. Then, the natural gases burned in the transport of the coffins must be taken into account, in addition to the allocation of space on a planet that is already overcrowded and drained of resources.
In New York City, burial space at Brooklyn’s historic 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery will run out in about five years, according to cemetery president Richard Moylan.
And just forget about Manhattan; Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleum is the only cemetery with space left available and even that is limited to crypt space for caskets and cremated remains, rather than in-ground burial. Even before in-ground burial space ran out, it came at a premium that only the very wealthy could afford. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch bought his grave at Trinity five years before his death, for a mere $20,000.
For Spade, there is also a symbolic element to her preference for composting over both burial and cremation. With cremation, the body is “destroyed” and there are no nutrients left. With conventional burial, the nutrients remain but the body is then pumped full of toxic, carcinogenic embalming fluid. When composting a body, the nutrients remain and the body can actively participate in the health of the environment around it.
Not only will composting help urban plant life and personal memorial gardens to flourish, but the process itself creates clean energy. Through a delicate balance of carbon and nitrogen plus additional environmental microbes, composting creates heat.
The Urban Death Project will use the composting process to heat the project building. This stands in contrast to the oft-cited “greener” form of laying the dead to rest, cremation, which requires less space but emits carbon and burns fossil fuels.
The Urban Death Project will also function as a funeral home. Rather, it will function as an alternative to the status quo of funeral homes, in which the needs of loved ones are not prioritized.
Spade’s vision for the project is a model “not based on sales and up-selling” but rather on caring for and helping families on a more personal level. She tells BTRtoday that she already knows many funeral directors who strive to involve and help families but that “the system is flawed” in such a way that too often it becomes about expensive packages and surface-level aid.
This disconnect between funerals and comfort for loved ones is also apparent to those in the green burial community. Kate Kalanick, Executive Director of the Green Burial Council, notices that too many plans for laying loved ones to rest happen in rushed, “grief-stricken states” right before or after a death. Such a state makes it easy for conventional funeral homes to up-sell and focus on “grandiose” funerals that, to Kalanick’s observation, do not necessarily bring people more comfort for the price.
It’s worth noting that nobody will be turned away by the Urban Death Project for lack of funds.
Such comfort goes for both loved ones and the deceased. Mark Harris, an environmental writer and author of “Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial,” believes that one’s resting place is important because it is one’s “final home.” As a result, he tells BTRtoday, that place must have “qualities of home.” This not only means a place where the deceased felt a sense of belonging when alive but also a place where loved ones feel welcome and comfortable.
Though not technically green burial, composting can similarly achieve this sense of welcome. By breaking down the body and letting loved ones plant what they will, the dead become even more intertwined with the living and their final home is that much more personal to those left alive.