By Ken McEntee, Owner
Republished from Composting News
Thirteen years ago, Composting News republished Pushing Up Daisies, compost pioneer Malcolm Beck’s essay about human body composting.
“In nature, all plants and animal bodies are disassembled, consumed, and returned to the
Earth by the decomposing microbes, which maintains soil fertility,” Beck wrote. “Wouldn't this also be a more respectful way to handle our deceased?”
Now, the Seattle-based Urban Death Project, is developing a new model of death care that it says “honors both our loved ones and the planet earth.” At the heart of this model is a composting system – called recomposition - that transforms human remains into soil.
“It occurred to me that I didn’t want the last thing I did on this planet to be polluting,” said Katrina Spade, founder and executive director of the project.
Spade has never heard of Beck, the founder and former owner of Garden-ville, a San Antonio-based compost producer. But she shares his view that traditional methods of cremation and burial are undesirable to the body and to the environment.
“The funeral industry gouges families,” she said. “They have to make them feel like they need a fancy coffin so they can make money. It is horrible.”
The Urban Death Project is working with Washington State University to develop a prototype composting facility using animal carcasses
“As far as I know we are the first to do a project like this,” Spade said.
Spade’s interest in composting human remains developed while she was in graduate school for architecture.
“I had an interest in decomposition that goes beyond the average architecture student,” she said. “I grew up in New Hampshire and we always raised and composted our own animals, so I developed a good knowledge of composing and permaculture design.”
She also became interested in the funeral industry.
“Today’s funerals don’t support the grieving as well as they could, and I also found out through research that cremation and convention burial pollute and are wasteful in different ways. We need to create new spaces in our cities where we can do death better, and incorporating the technology of livestock composting made sense.”
In the recomposition process, the deceased body would be lowered down into a tall composting bay with a small footprint, where it would be composted with a bulking agent like wood chips. Aeration would be provided by ports in the side of the structure.
“It’s based on livestock composting principles, but we actually invented our own process,” Spade said. “We took the aerated windrow concept and turned it on its side so that it is vertically designed. The reason it is vertical is because it is meant to be for the city, so we need to minimize land use, so the obvious thing to do is to go up. The system we designed is vertically stacked, which I don’t think has ever been done before because there really hasn’t been a need for it. Most composting is done in rural spaces, where there is land.”
Gradually, the body move downward through the bay as it decomposed. The end product would be about a yard of compost, including the composted bulking materials.
“We think the process will take four to six weeks, but we really don’t know until we build the prototype,” she said. “This is not like cremation where you give the ashes of the body to the family. This is a corrective system in the end. The bodies are put in and composted individually, but when we get to the second stage there will be a mixing and curing and finishing of the compost, because at that point we are no longer human. Families will be encouraged to take some of that compost, but it won’t just be from a single body at that point.”
Spade expects that about six bodies could be moving down through the bay at the same time, each of which would be in a different stage of decomposition. The bays would be modularly designed, so a site could have one or more.
Last winter, Spade and Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State worked with Western Carolina University to determine the most efficient way of composting human bodies. Donated bodies were placed in beds of wood chips, To vary the conditions, alfalfa pellets and water were later added to one of the bodies.
Human composting, Spade said is not legal in any state in the U.S.
“Our legal team thinks that if we really want to we could probably do it now in Colorado,” she said. “How we care for deceased bodies is a state by state decision. Most states are the same generally, with three options: bury, cremate or donate to science. In Washington we are working on a strategy to bring it to the legislature to offer another option for consumers.”
The Urban Death Project, a non-profit organization is now seeking donations toward building a prototype. The current fundraising campaign seeks $20,000 by the end of November. The overall cost of the prototype is expected to be around $75,000, with a final project cost of around $300,000.
“Once we make money we can start to involve Washington State,” she said. “Once we have a prototype, which will only take a couple months to build, we can run a pilot program. We have to have a successful pilot program before we can take it to the legislature. Hopefully we can take this to the legislature within a year and a half to two years.”
Spade said she took her idea to Carpenter-Boggs after learning of Washington State’s work in composting livestock moralities.
“We will start by insuring that the system works by using some human sized animals, then maybe we will find some human donors,” she said. “We’re already getting inquiries about this.”
Ultimately, she said, the process would include on-site memorial services.
“By composting the body, the laws of nature are not violated and the cycles of life will be completed,” Beck wrote.
Through the end of November, donations to the project can be made at https://recomposition.causevox.com.