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Is Human Composting the Future of Urban Burial?

Funeral practices hide death from view, often at the expense of the environment. Can we die with dignity — in a way that saves the Earth — simply by embracing death?

By Laura Yan


(Photo: David Ohmer/Flickr)

A Tibetan Buddhist meditation goes: Death is certain, when life is uncertain, so what should you do? The meditation is meant to make us reflect on the way we live, but it also raises questions about what happens when we die. What’s the last thing you want to leave behind? Is it a cherished memory, a legacy of your life and art? Is it a toll on an already overburdened environment?

Each year, over 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel are buried in coffins: enough wood to build 40 single-family homes. Some 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 17,000 tons of steel and copper go into building vaults — enough to re-build the Golden Gate Bridge every year — and enough formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is used in embalming to fill 1.2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Even cremation, a popular and seemingly simple option, comes at a high cost: It releases 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

A green funeral movement is starting to push for eco-conscious burials in natural environments, but it still distances the living from the dead. For city dwellers, architect Katrina Spade has come up with a surprising solution. Spade was studying architecture in a graduate program at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst when she learned about livestock composting from a friend, and wondered if she could apply the same process to humans. The sketches for that concept became her graduate thesis, and the beginnings of the Urban Death Project.

Spade calls this new process “re-composition.” It’s a “gentle” way to describe human composting without the association with garbage and food. Re-composition is about giving death a chance to re-grow into new life, and Spade imagines it taking place constantly, all around us, in facilities scattered across neighborhoods like library branches.

Future families will bring the deceased, wrapped in a linen shroud, to a re-composition center, a building with a three-story center where the bodies are placed. The laying in of the body “[begins] the transformation,” Spade explains. The nitrogen rich bodies are laid on top of a pile of carbon-rich woodchips and sawdust and allowed to break down, creating a nutrient rich, soil-like substance. The heat released from the chemical reaction should kill common pathogens and extinguish any smells. With human bodies, there are a few more factors to work out, like how to decompose bones or teeth. After four to six weeks, the bodies (including the bones) break down and turn into about a cubic yard of compost, which can be used to plant memorial gardens or trees.

According to Spade, in future re-composition centers, there will also be staff “trained in grieving deeper and in more participatory ways than we’re used to.” The death care staff signals a different kind of funeral practice, a more intimate relationship with death. They are trained to support families that want to have home funerals, for instance, where families help prepare the body for burial — washing it, wrapping it, handling it, and carrying it to the facility. Family and friends will be able to design a personal laying-in ceremony according to their faiths and preferences: “music, silence, candles, conversations, whatever works.”

There are advocates within the funeral industry pushing for a more gracious, personal death, but, according to Nora Menkin, a funeral director at the Co-op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial in Seattle, Washington, (and a board advisor on the Urban Death Project), re-composition isn’t fully on the death industry’s radar yet. The conversation is growing, and Menkin hopes beyond just a small community of death care experts: “I think it’s a time that people are realizing that you don’t have to blindly follow what is traditional,” she says.

“We drive death to the outskirts of society, literally.”

Current conventional funeral practices are mostly built around our discomforts around death. Instead of facing death as a natural process and talking about how to prepare for it, we avoid it until it is too late. We hire funeral directors to make important decisions and embalm bodies to hide signs of decay. We construct elaborate rituals, buy extravagant caskets, and build ornate vaults to shroud the inevitable process of decomposition. We hide grief behind ritual.

Spade, a 38-year-old architect from New Hampshire, was born to a family of doctors and aware of death from an early age. She grew up on a 13-acre farm, surrounded by lush, growing things and their decay. She remembers seeing the farm animals slaughtered, or learning when a patient of her parents died. Death was never taboo, and she wants to bring that openness about death to our cultural reality.

“The main thing we’re trying to provide is really a beautiful space unlike what we have,” Spade says. “A framework for ritual,” free from religious affiliations or needless tradition.

Spade has seen many places around the world — from other cities in the United States to Canada, India, Australia, and the United Kingdom — express interest in building re-composition centers, but making it a worldwide phenomenon still has its challenges. Re-composition has yet to become legal. It’s not illegal currently, per se; each state in the U.S. makes its own laws about disposition methods. Some states don’t have any restrictions, while others limit it to burial, cremation, or the donation of a body to science. Restricted states have been adding new methods to their approved lists, like alkaline hydrolysis, a kind of “green cremation,” so there is a precedent for re-composition, but legislation hurdles can still spring up. For instance, according to Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University, Indiana legislature “voted to defeat a bill to permit alkaline hydrolysis after a single legislator, who owns a casket company, testified against the process.” The other obstacle, of course, is in people’s minds, whether it’s coming to terms with the notion of multiple bodies stacked in one facility, or turning a person’s remains into gardening material.

Organizations like the Order of the Good Death are trying to encourage a “death positive” attitude, in which conversation and thoughtfulness replace denial and distance. Others are also devising eco-friendly ways to innovate the funeral industry. A project called Capsula Mundi envisions cemeteries that consist of trees growing on top of biodegradable pods that hold bodies curled up in fetal position (or ashes in smaller capsules). Artist Jae Rhim Lee came up with the concept for the Infinity Burial Suit, a bodysuit you wear after death that uses mushroom spores to eat away the body’s toxins, and, eventually, the body itself. “For me, cultivating the Infinity Mushroom is more than just scientific experimentation … it’s a step towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay. It’s also a step towards taking responsibility for my own burden on the planet,” Lee said in a 2011 TED talk.

Both of those projects require green cemeteries that allow for eco-friendly burials. Traditional funeral homes and cemeteries are offering more green burial services, and they are growing in popularity: A 2015 survey from the Green Burial Council reported that over 72 percent of green burial providers saw an increase in demand for the service. The problem with green burials, still, is finding the space. Although the numbers of green cemeteries is increasing, they are still far from cities where much of the world lives (in developed countries, about 74 percent of the population lives in urban areas).

“We drive death to the outskirts of society, literally,” Menkin says. We try hard to separate spaces for the living and the dead, but there’s value in integrating death into everyday life. It’s exactly what the UDP team is trying to do as it plans to build the first prototype of a re-composition center on the Washington State University campus.

“I think it’s the right historical moment for this project to work,” Spade says. For her, the move toward eco-friendly death care options mirror the “grief we’re all feeling for the state of the planet.” The UDP team’s will be building a prototype of the system at Washington State University, and the Soil Science Department there will run a pilot program. The UDP team hopes to finish the approval process with the city of Seattle by spring of 2017. After testing animal remains to make sure the system works, they’ll invite human volunteers to participate. “If everything goes well, 2023 is when we open the doors to a full scale re-composition center,” in the city of Seattle, Spade says.

Having an actual center will hopefully make a difference in how people think about re-composition. Although memorial services will take priority in the future re-composition center, it will also be open for tours to the public. Visitors will be able to get used to the actual facility, and, more importantly, get used to the presence of death. They won’t have to drive far out of town for an annual visit to a loved one’s grave — they’ll be able to wander the lush gardens of a UDP facility during their lunch break, to “contemplate their mortality, or just have a sandwich,” Spade says. The re-composition centers will embrace death as a natural part of life, rather than something to be frightened of.

Menkin believes that the more participatory death that the UDP encourages can be “healing and cathartic.” Adoptees of re-composition will be able to see that “we’re still treating this vessel that held a person once upon a time with dignity.” But this same involvement could turn some off, especially those who prefer death to happen behind closed doors. “We’re not advocating that everyone should go this way,” Menkin says. It’s just about having more choices: whether it’s the food we eat, the clothes we wear, or how we die.