Instead of preserving the body of the deceased with embalming fluid, and then burying it in a casket designed to last for years and years underground, this project aims to turn them into compost.
When viewed from an environmental perspective, traditional burials, which preserve the bodies in a casket or vault underground, basically tying up space and materials forever, are not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination, especially in high population areas, where access to land is a limited resource. Not only do all the funeral and burial trappings require a steady supply of materials, which first need to be extracted or harvested, and then manufactured and transported, but then those materials (as well as the resources tied up in the human body) get taken completely out of the loop, because they're placed 6 feet under the ground.
So-called 'natural burials' and other green burials and green funeral practices are nothing new, and we've covered them many times over the years, but the Urban Death Project is planning to not only reduce the environmental and social costs of death, but to actually 'close the loop' with the human body.
The brainchild of Katrina Spade, an Echoing Green Climate Fellow who wrote a Masters thesis entitled "Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Resting Place for the Urban Dead", the Urban Death Project is "a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting."
"The project utilizes the science of composting to safely and sustainably turn bodies into soil-building material, which is then used by nearby farms and community gardens. The Urban Death Project is transforming an industry where wasteful, polluting disposal practices are the status quo." - Katrina Spade
At the heart of the system is a three story core structure, which acts as both a giant composter, where microbial activity and aerobic decomposition convert the bodies (along with high-carbon materials like wood chips and sawdust, which are needed for optimal composting activity) of the deceased into a rich soil-building material, and which also functions as a contemplative space for mourners.
The body is first placed in the top of the core and covered with wood chips and sawdust, and as it decomposes, over the course of a month, it settles down to the bottom, where a rich, finished, compost emerges.
"Friends, family, and the neighboring community take the compost to their homes and gardens. In this way, the dead are folded back into the fabric of the city and reborn to support new growth." - Urban Death Project
According to FastCoExist, Spade is now working on the project full time, thanks to the Echoing Green fellowship, and is working toward building a prototype in Seattle. If the prototype performs as designed, then finding a location for a full-scale version of the facility will follow, perhaps eventually allowing our bodies to do one last good green deed.
More details of the project are available on the Urban Death Project website.