The Architect Who Wants to Redesign Being Dead
by Brendan Kiley
If you happen to die in North America, this is probably what will happen next: Someone will pause for a moment in front of your corpse and then make a phone call. They'll call either a funeral home or a local government agency, depending on how much money you have. Some minutes later—I've never timed the interval, but in my experience it's always at the crossroads of too soon and eternity—two people will show up in suits to take your body away. They will briskly shake hands with the living and say, "I'm sorry for your loss," in a tone that indicates they'd like to be sorry for your loss, but this is what they do for work. To preserve a semblance of dignity, they might invite the living to step out of the room while they begin the awkward business of wrangling your body onto a board, strapping it down, and getting you out of there as quickly as possible.
After that, unless you've planned ahead for something exotic—donating your body to a university, burial at sea—you're headed in one of two directions: a casket or a furnace.
The American dead, like American voters, fall roughly into two camps. In this rough analogy, the conventional burial industry is like the Republican Party: a lot of suits, a lot of money, lobbyists to protect their interests, and a general acceptance that cutting down trees (for caskets), pouring concrete (for vaults), and putting toxic chemicals underground (embalming fluids) are simply part of the American way. Cremationists are more like the Democratic Party: slightly looser dress code, still interested in profit margins but perhaps not as fanatically (there is a lot less money to be made from a $400 urn than a $3,000 casket), and a belief that they are on the progressive side of history.
Many funeral homes offer both burial and cremation services, to be fair, but they tend to emphasize one or the other, depending on the kind of business they run and what part of the country they're in. The burial/cremation divide follows an uncanny red-state/blue-state pattern. According to the Cremation Association of North America, which collects and analyzes state and county data, cremation is far more popular in New England and on the West Coast (in 2013, Washington State had a cremation rate of 73.2 percent, the national average was 45.3 percent), while the top five states for conventional burial are Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia.
A small but growing constituency has been advocating for a broader spectrum of options, giving rise to the "green burial" and "alt-death" movements. This crowd advocates for home funerals, nontoxic embalming, natural burial grounds that don't require vaults (conventional cemeteries insist on concrete vaults so the ground won't sink as caskets decompose, which can make it more difficult to mow the lawn), an end to price gouging from predatory funeral homes, and so on.
All of which seems pretty modest compared to what Katrina Spade has in mind.
The Seattle-based architect, originally from New England, has a vision that could radically reshape not just the death-care industry but the way we think about death itself.
She calls her plan the Urban Death Project, and it proposes a middle road between burial and cremation: compost. After coming to the funeral world's attention in 2014 by winning a substantial "climate fellow" grant from the Echoing Green foundation, Spade's ideas have rocketed to prominence and begun to change the conversation about what it means to be dead.
The Urban Death Project is still in the design stages, but its outlines are becoming clear. The centerpiece of the idea is an approximately three-story-high building in an urban center where people could bring their dead. Friends and family would accompany the departed up a circular ramp to the top of the "core," or central decomposition chamber. They could then perform a "laying-in" ceremony, during which the body would be set into a mix of wood chips, straw, and other organic material. The core would be divided into approximately five "bays"—almost like elevator shafts—with several bodies in various stages of decomposition in each bay, separated from the bodies above and below by several feet of wood chips. Gravity and microbial activity would regulate the speed of each body's descent, and, after a few weeks or months (this part is still in the research stages), loved ones would be able to return to the building to pick up the remains, which have become humus.
Spade alternately describes this process as "cremation by carbon."
Most importantly, no single body would undergo the process alone. Every body would have company on its way down. This is the Urban Death Project's most radical proposition, the thing that sets it apart from cremation or burial: It deposes the idea of individuation in death. No human body, of course, decomposes on its own. People's ashes mix in a cremation retort, and caskets in cemeteries decay together. But our current death-care rituals allow us to pretend otherwise. An urn of ashes represents a person. A burial plot represents a person.
Compost is collective.
If you go to pick up the remains of a loved one at the Urban Burial Project, Spade says, "You will get your person—but you will also get some of your person's neighbor."
Spade's idea is being hotly discussed throughout the alt-death world, and funeral directors from around the country—especially those interested in consumer advocacy and green burial—have taken notice.
"She's struck a chord, no question," says Char Barrett, director of the green-burial funeral home A Sacred Moment. "You go anywhere, and people are talking about it."
Two inspirations have been guiding Spade as she tries to bring the Urban Death Project to fruition. One comes from the world of art, the other from the world of science. The artistic inspiration is Neukom Vivarium, a mixed-media installation by artist Mark Dion in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park. The Vivarium is an 80-foot greenhouse containing a 60-foot hemlock tree that is dead (in the classical sense) but also teeming with vitality. With magnifying glasses, visitors to Neukom Vivarium can examine insects, fungi, ferns, mosses, and other life-forms thriving on and around the trunk—it's a celebration of decomposition and regeneration as a major aesthetic project. "I'm interested in thinking about nature as a process," Dion said in an interview with Art21 magazine. "So this isn't really about the tree, even though the tree is the superstar. It's really about what's happening to the tree, about the process of decay."
Spade's second inspiration has been the research of soil scientists like Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, who studies "mortality composting"—a relatively new technique to dispose of livestock.
Years ago, if a cow or horse or pig died, a farmer could call someone from the local rendering plant to come by, give him or her a few bucks, and haul the carcass away to be turned into lard or soap or dog food. "Rendering is no longer economically feasible," says Carpenter-Boggs. "Partially because of the yuck factor, but mostly because petroleum and synthetic products started taking the place of all those materials." By 2005, she says, there were four or fewer registered renderers in Washington, and by that point, you had to pay them—sometimes several hundred dollars—to get rid of large animals. As the frequency of pickups decreased, carcasses would be left sitting around for uncomfortably long periods of time.
Carpenter-Boggs, a crop and soil scientist, first encountered mortality composting while working as a researcher for the US Department of Agriculture in Minnesota, back when Minnesota was revising its rules on the practice. When she moved here to work at Washington State University, this state was also clarifying its rules, and Carpenter-Boggs set up demonstrations for curious farmers and ranchers. Among the issues she'd worked on in Minnesota were regulations about what kinds of animal deaths might prohibit the composting of an individual animal: African swine fever, horse pox, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy can survive the decomposition process. "Certain pathogens are very hearty," Carpenter-Boggs explains. "Mad cow is caused by a prion and there are prions that survive very high temperatures... but for the vast majority of illnesses, those organisms would be degraded" by composting.
Many of the Washington State farmers Carpenter-Boggs taught were surprised by how quickly even large animals decomposed under the right conditions. All it takes is the proper mix of straw and wood chips (which depends, in part, on the climate), aeration pipes, and a certain amount of moisture. "When people are starting to figure out their on-farm process, we recommend that you build an undisturbed pile and don't bother it for at least two months," she says. "Usually, if the process has gone well, people start hesitantly looking into it after two months and are shocked that they can't find anything." Once a compost pile is up and running, the bulk of the process—even for a large animal such as a cow—can be finished in a matter of weeks.
Just about everything composts well, according to Carpenter-Boggs. An animal's soft tissue goes first, of course. Bones degrade not based on their size but their density. "Femurs break down easily because of the marrow," she says. "The microorganisms can work both the inside and the outside. But the scapula, the pelvis—where there's not as much marrow inside and the actual bone is thicker—can take longer." Bones react particularly strongly to air exposure. If they remain completely covered, they become soft. But if they are in contact with the air, they become hard and brittle. Wool is also slow to break down, perhaps because its protective oils impede the microbial process. "That has been a little surprising," Carpenter-Boggs says. "There's so much protein in wool and hair."
Caitlin Price Youngquist, one of Carpenter-Boggs's students who wrote her master's thesis on mortality composting and now teaches in the extension program at the University of Wyoming, says rumens—part of the digestive system of cows and sheep—also take a surprisingly long time to decompose. "When we excavated, there was no odor," Price Youngquist says. "But then we'd find a bright, bright green pocket of material that used to be the stomach and didn't break down at the same rate as everything else." She suspects that's because a cow's stomach—which relies on bacteria instead of enzymes, like human stomachs do—starts out with a very different microbial environment and has a different relationship with the composting process.
And what about the odor? "It would smell a little different than a manure pile, but not unpleasant," she says. "Sort of a cooked odor. It didn't smell like rotting flesh. It didn't smell like meat... I was really surprised by how well it worked." Sometimes she'd climb onto a large pile that might contain several decomposing carcasses to measure the temperature and not smell or see any evidence that she was standing on rotting animals until she hit a bone with her thermometer, just six inches below the surface.
"There was no shortage of jokes about working for the mafia when I was doing this research," Price Youngquist says.
Nobody yet knows exactly what will happen to human bodies in this process. Earlier this year, Spade took a trip to North Carolina to meet with Cheryl Johnston, a forensic anthropology professor at Western Carolina University, which has a fenced-in and highly guarded human decomposition facility (colloquially known as a "body farm," though the university prefers the former term) where students study the natural decomposition of human remains in the wild. This research is useful for law enforcement as well as anthropologists—Spade says that sometimes the students will replicate a crime scene and follow along with detectives as they try to reconstruct what happened before and after a suspicious death. (Professor Johnston did not respond to requests for comment.)
Spade is currently in talks with WCU to build some smaller prototypes of the Urban Death Project and do some direct research into the most efficient compost dissolution systems—timing, temperature, moisture, potential odor, and the best mix of wood chips and other organic material. Carpenter-Boggs suspects that, based on the elemental composition of human bodies, the compost from a 200-pound human being will produce six pounds of nitrogen, two pounds of phosphorus, and one pound of potassium—the three nutrients typically listed on fertilizers. "I know this is going to be an offensive simplification of the value of a human body," she wrote in an e-mail, "but one could compare the fertilizer value to 100 pounds of cottonseed meal." She linked to a bag of "6-2-1" cottonseed-meal fertilizer on sale at Amazon.com. "Which, from this source, would be two of the 50-pound bags = $144. But one could also buy the nutrients in purely inorganic mineral fertilizer form for $25 or less."
Of course, the nutrient value of human beings as soil is only a small component of the Urban Death Project's overall mission. Price Youngquist was struck by the quasi-emotional component of mortality composting, even for animals: "I worked with a lot of dairy farms, and death is a tricky subject. People don't want to talk about death on farms, but it's expensive to lose an animal—and personal, too." The idea of keeping the animal on the farm somehow, spreading it over the next corn or grass crop, provided a kind of comfort.
She also has a connection to the green-burial world. From the age of 11, Price Youngquist spent every summer at Ekone Ranch, a camp just south of the Yakima Indian Reservation, north of the Columbia River. Eventually, she worked there as the camp director and tended the livestock. When one of the camp's founders died suddenly in 2007, the Ekone community had his body put on ice and began the months-long process of certifying part of the ranch as a natural burial ground—a place where people could be buried without embalming or vaults or any of the varnish, metal, or hardwood common to conventional cemeteries. White Eagle, as that area of the ranch is known, has the distinction of being a conservation burial ground, where the graves serve to protect the land in perpetuity. According to White Eagle cemetery manager Jodie Buller, the site saw 13 burials in 2014. She says around 40 people are buried there total now, and 80 currently living people have picked spots to be interred in a simple shroud or natural casket made of pine or other softwood.
Price Youngquist has assisted one ceremony at White Eagle, helping bury a woman in a simple basket. "It was a very intense and strangely intimate experience with someone I've never met," she says. "The intimacy surprised me."
Spade's proposal, the Urban Death Project, appeals to Price Youngquist both as a soil scientist and as someone involved in the green-burial movement.
Rich soil is a disappearing resource: According to the Soil Science Society of America, it takes between 500 and a few thousand years to form an inch of topsoil, but only a year or two of farming and erosion to lose it. Our dead bodies could help ameliorate the problem: More than half of the world's population lives in cities, and Spade estimates each body could produce a cubic yard of compost. But the vast majority of us are planning on either burning ourselves up or pumping ourselves full of formaldehyde and locking ourselves into sealed boxes below the ground.
"Burial is another resource-intensive process," Price Youngquist points out. "We can connect that back into the cycle where the body goes back in and feeds the soil. We're effecting a level of soil degradation and soil loss that's unprecedented and critical on a global scale. Putting carbon back into the soil is critical."
Who better to do it than us? While Spade's cultural proposal—that we can and should wake up from the illusion that our corpses are still individual persons—is the ambitious intellectual component of the Urban Death Project, the climate-change considerations are more urgent. To illustrate her point, Spade uses a travel metaphor: "If you're driving to Mexico but just slowing down, you're not going to get to Canada. If we're going to reverse this process, we have to completely change everything. Everything."
"We're humans," Spade adds. "We can do better."
When I visited Spade last October in temporary rented offices in South Lake Union, where she was holding a two-person design charrette with Garth Schwellenbach, a friend of hers from architecture school, I saw a note on the wall that elegantly sums up the project's potential:
heat, ash, ephemeral
transformation of energy
Chipper and slender, with short brown hair and a face that radiates good health and optimism, Spade is the opposite of the dour-faced undertaker cliché. But the arc of her life seems eerily suited to have produced this startlingly simple idea at the junction of bodies, decomposition, and aesthetics. She grew up on a dead-end dirt road in rural New Hampshire where her family raised animals for slaughter and grew vegetables, freezing broccoli and beans to last them through the winter. It was a community where neighbors shared an old tractor from the 1940s and made maple syrup when the weather got cold. Each household had its compost piles. "We knew where our meat was coming from, where our vegetables were coming from"—as well as where they were going. "We weren't religious," she says, "but we saw nature as somehow spiritual."
Body talk was not uncommon dinnertime conversation. Spade's father is a retired physician, and her mother is a retired physician's assistant as well as an environmental activist. When a new dam was proposed for the nearby Connecticut River, threatening to flood an island that is one of the few homes for the rare cobblestone tiger beetle, Spade's mother mounted a campaign to make the beetle the official town insect. The following year, she convinced the town to adopt the dwarf wedge mussel as the town mollusk. Once reporters started writing articles and state naturalists got involved, developers dropped their campaign for the dam.
Spade studied anthropology at a tiny liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and eventually moved to San Francisco with her girlfriend at the height of its first tech bubble. She wound up in the epidemiology division at the Stanford School of Medicine, working on a study about the bone density of long-distance runners.
After her grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, Spade and her partner moved in with her grandmother in rural Vermont and had their second child. During that time, Spade also attended the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, where she studied "permaculture, deeper ecological thinking, whole-systems design, nutrient loops, thinking way beyond things like LEED." (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is considered the gold standard for environmentalism among many builders.)
When asked for a specific example of what that means, she talked about "Pain mounds," named after French inventor and innovator Jean Pain, who discovered a way to harness the energy from compost piles to heat water and generate enough methane to run generators and trucks. Spade worked on a grant-funded project to build one and found it was a way of "powering a whole farm with decomposition" that, in the end, produced "a gorgeous pile of super-nutrient-rich compost." After 18 months, it would begin to cool off, and a farm would theoretically have enough organic material to build another mound.
Spade was accepted at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to study architecture and promptly underwent a mortality crisis. With a wife and two small children, Spade was already older than most of her peers. "When you have babies, you can see them age physically," she says. "I thought, 'If they're growing up, I'm going down. Holy crap, I'm going to die!' Mundane, I know. But I wondered, 'What would my family do with me when I die?'"
As she began researching her postmortem options, neither conventional burial nor cremation seemed satisfactory. The former was too toxic and expensive, the latter too carbon-intensive. And neither seemed particularly meaningful to her. "I looked into natural burial," she says, referring to the handful of burial grounds in the countryside where one can be interred in a cotton shroud or simple pine box, without embalming or a concrete vault. "It's a beautiful option for rural people, but shouldn't there be some option for us in the city? What could be more natural than creating soil?"
Around that time, Spade was visiting her parents—which can always intensify a mortality crisis—and reading The World Without Us, a thought experiment about a post-human planet by journalist Alan Weisman. She was struck with the idea of humans turning into compost. The more she thought about it, the more sense it made.
"I don't want my last gesture as a human being, as I die, to be a big 'fuck you' to the earth," she says. "I'd rather have my last gesture be at the very least benign, or even beneficial. We are full of potential—our bodies are. We have nutrients in us, and there's no way we should be packed into a box that doesn't let us go into the earth."
The Urban Death Project was born.
Now that she lives in Seattle, Spade is in the perfect city, at the perfect moment, to launch a revolutionary idea about death care.
"Seattle is the best place for alternative death right now," says Caitlin Doughty, whose "Ask a Mortician" YouTube series has arguably made her America's first celebrity funeral director. "There's something about Seattle being a bastion of progressive culture that lends itself to looking at new ways of doing things... You don't see people in Silicon Valley saying, 'The funeral industry is screwed, let's reimagine it as a consumer-friendly interactive web experience.'"
But according to Doughty, the funeral industry is, in fact, screwed. The leaders of the industry are conservative and slow-moving. Many haven't begun to register the significance of the alt-death and green-burial movements. "They're so far behind, they're still talking about the threat of cremation," she says. This was echoed by a few funeral directors I talked to for this story, including one green-burial funeral director who wanted to remain anonymous but said that in 2011, "I was sitting in a big company's executive meeting and they were still talking about 'the cremation problem.'" According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation rates have climbed steadily from around 3.5 percent in 1960 to 45.3 percent in 2013. The Cremation Association of North America's latest report predicts this number will cross the 50 percent mark in 2018.
An even more serious crisis than cremation is on the horizon for the conventional burial industry—baby boomers have never met a major life event they didn't overhaul and individualize. As boomers have moved through sex, marriage, and childbirth, they've left a trail of sex toys, birth-control technologies, DIY wedding ideas, doulas, alternative schools, and children who've never been spanked. "The WWII generation is called 'the silent generation' for a reason," says Brian Flowers, green funeral director at Moles Farewell Tributes in Bellingham. "They've told their baby-boomer children: 'I don't want a fuss. I want it simple.'" Hence the steep rise in cremation. "But baby boomers are the ones who say, 'We're the generation who've done things our way—good, bad, or ugly.'"
The "I want it simple" ethos has also drained death of its ritual significance, Flowers argues. "We've translated simple into nothing... drained ritual out of our lives across the board." The boomers may want to bring ritual back, but if they do, it will be in their own image.
The result is a cultural climate primed for ideas like the Urban Death Project. There is very little data on rates of green burial, but a 1999 AARP survey of 1,087 people showed that 21 percent of respondents aged 50 or older were "interested" in some kind of eco-friendly burial without embalming or vaults. That number is sure to rise. Burying someone directly in the soil without embalming or a casket is generally legal, but most privately owned cemeteries prohibit it, which has led to a misconception that the practice is illicit or even a danger to public health. In 2008, Bibb County, Georgia, passed an ordinance against green burial—becoming the first county in the country to do so—in response to the founding of Summerland Natural Cemetery. The commissioners based their decision on the reactionary fear that green burial would contaminate local groundwater. The decomposition of a mammal—a squirrel, a cat, a human—is, of course, far less toxic than the materials used in conventional caskets, not to mention embalming chemicals. This widespread confusion between what's technically illegal and what's just a preference of the funerary industry is a source of aggravation and frustration for people in the green-burial and alt-death worlds.
Char Barrett of A Sacred Moment says she recently convinced a Seattle cemetery to allow some dirt to be put inside a concrete vault, to comply with the deceased's wish that her body touch the soil. Even that was a mighty struggle. "We had to send documentation, diagrams, a list of the procedure," Barrett says. "They'd never had a shrouded body in their cemetery. They didn't know what to do."
"It's important to undo the lockstep of embalming, undo the lockstep of cremation," Doughty says. In 2011, Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death, a loose affiliation of academics, artists, and death professionals who are the de facto R&D wing of the American death-care industry. Its members include Cassandra Yonder, a death midwife, who helps families with home funerals; Jeff Jorgenson, the funeral director at Seattle's Elemental Cremation & Burial, which specializes in nontoxic embalming and carbon-neutral cremations; Greg Lundgren, a Seattle artist and dealer who makes cast-glass headstones; Pia Interlandi, who designs biodegradable burial garments; and Jae Rhim Lee, perhaps one of the best-known members of the Order, who gave a popular TED Talk about her Infinity Burial Project, a "death suit" that trains mushrooms to remediate toxins in human tissue. (Seattle fashion designer Mark Mitchell, who has also created burial clothing, isn't a member of the Order, but has contributed to the cultural shift in how we think about death. The Frye Art Museum hosted an exhibition of his burial garments in 2013.)
"Some people are doing big-ticket, fascinating things," Spade says. "Things that get covered in the Atlantic or Wired, and people not normally engaged in death and body-disposal technology are saying, 'That's so rad, let me think about what I want.' They're getting involved in things that are too fascinating to ignore, and not just micro-changes. You say, 'Do you know your ashes can be made into a necklace?' and its just Gasp! Shock! Awe, awe, awe!"
The conventional burial industry is unlikely to give in—and lose more of its business—without a fight. Activists like Joshua Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council have been slugging it out in the trenches for years, combating greenwashing (such as cemeteries that claim to offer "green burial" but still insist on concrete vaults) and trying to reform laws under which, as Slocum puts it, "the dead body becomes a hostage of the funeral industry."
In Indiana, for example, it's illegal to hold a funeral service without hiring a funeral director to be present. "You'd think you could avoid this by having the body cremated and having a service with the ashes," says Samuel Perry, funeral home compliance and education specialist with the Green Burial Council. "But they changed the wording of the laws to say cremated remains are technically a body. With those definitions, even with cremated remains present, you're supposed to have a funeral director there." Families have to pay for that. There are other regulations about who has the ability to file a death certificate or who can transport a body. In some cities, Perry says, funeral directors charge $350 to transport bodies just a few blocks. The idea of driving grandma's body from the funeral home to the cemetery might seem odd to some but, alt-death advocates argue, it shouldn't be illegal.
"Our current laws and regulations about the disposition of remains are entirely arbitrary, entirely cultural, and historically bound," Slocum says. "Survey 10 people, and you will find someone who finds any given practice repulsive and someone else who thinks it's wonderful. We don't believe that laws should restrict individuals' options for disposition of the body unless there is a demonstrable impact of that disposition on anyone else's safety or health." But he acknowledges that Spade's project, and its quiet confrontation of our accepted death-care practices, "has an uphill battle... she's going to have to do a lot of patient and repetitive explaining."
Nora Menkin, director of the People's Memorial co-op, says funeral homes have been able to act with an unusual degree of impunity because the living have an aversion to talking about death. "They're businesses," she says. "They make money off people not asking questions. They exist outside the normal rules of supply and demand. They tell people what to pay, and then they pay it." Even her own family, which knows what she does for a living, has been reluctant to use her as a resource when people close to them have died. "Not everybody is open to this, no matter how much information we put out there."
In the course of working on this story, several death-care professionals referred to Dignity® Memorial--which has spent decades buying up mom-and-pop funeral homes and has been embroiled in legal trouble regarding its relationship with the presidential Bush family--as "the evil empire." Flowers, of Moles Farewell Tributes, says Dignity® has a virtual monopoly in some places. Dignity®'s parent company, Service Corporation International, is the largest cemetery and funeral business in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission has intervened when it has tried to buy up competitors. In 2013, for example, when SCI acquired the second-largest funerary business in the United States—Stewart Enterprises, Inc.—the FTC concluded that the deal would "substantially lessen competition in 59 communities throughout the US." (The commission forced SCI to sell off some of its funeral homes and cemeteries before allowing the acquisition to continue.)
"They're masterful sales organizations," Flowers says. "Sometimes their funeral directors are even put on commission and say things like 'Let's choose a casket befitting his or her stature in the community.' No. Let's work with your budget. That is dignified."
Flowers points out that Service Corporation International prominently lists its stock ticker on its homepage. "That's a clear indication of who they're beholden to," he says. "It's not the families."
Jessica McDunn, a spokesperson for SCI, says the company's funeral directors are not paid commissions when serving "at-need" families (that is, families in which a death is recent or impending) and that "the majority of SCI funeral directors are not commission-based." As for the company's business practices in general, she says: "We're always evaluating the business climates throughout the US and Canada, and act when we feel it's appropriate."
Some of the industry's conservatism is profit-driven—but some is simply cultural. Joe Sehee cofounded the watchdog Green Burial Council in 2005 after working at IBM (where he knew the legendary geometer Benoit Mandelbrot) and then spending some time helping a funeral company with its digital archiving. "I was thrown into this industry that seemed like it hadn't changed in 100 years," he says. In many ways, it still hasn't. A large number of funeral homes are legacy businesses that have been handed down from father to son—it's a male-dominated industry—who feel a responsibility to stick with the traditions.
"We all understand there's something horribly wrong with this merchandized form of death care, but you have to deal with the fact that it's set up that way," Sehee says. "Chemical companies founded the first mortuary schools, they worked with the casket companies, and they created long-standing, multigenerational relationships. Can you imagine if someone said everything your father, grandfather, and school told you was bullshit? Imagine what that would do to your world."
The Green Burial Council's attempts to engage the industry and combat greenwashing were far more difficult than even Sehee expected. Before he was at IBM, he'd spent part of the 1980s in Nicaragua and El Salvador during their civil wars, working with radical priests and liberation theologians who were literally in the crosshairs of armies and paramilitary death squads—and he says his years trying to change the funeral industry were even more trying. "People I knew had been killed," he says about his time in Central America. "And that work was easier in some ways." After years of trying to untie the knots in the industry, from the insurance companies to the funeral homes to the chemical and concrete manufacturers, Sehee thinks something drastic has to happen.
"It's going to have to be disrupted," he says. Projects like Spade's may play a part in that disruption, if only by getting people to talk about it. The Urban Death Project, like the textbook definition of conceptual art, might do its most important work in people's heads. "It's a great conversation starter," he says. "Even if it never gets built."
In September, Spade convened a feedback meeting on the Urban Death Project in a small conference room at Seattle University. Caitlin Doughty was in town for a book reading and attended, as did Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial and Nora Menkin of People's Memorial.
It was a pun-heavy meeting. "Do you have a name for the column?" Doughty asked, referring to the core of the building where bodies would be composted. "The compost-orium? The com-post-mortem?"
Later, someone suggested that Spade's ambitious vision was a "monumental undertaking."
Funeral professionals, like cops and reporters, seem to need morbid humor to keep themselves sane.
Spade outlined her vision for the way the core would work, the types of rooms and staff it would require (from funeral director to maintenance workers), potential templates for the laying-in ceremony, and her desire for each Urban Death Project to reflect the cultural and aesthetic sensibilities of whatever urban community it's in. "In my vision," she said, "there will be one of these in every neighborhood in every city in the world."
She also outlined her often-repeated belief that death care "should be an extension of health care—if we did health care right. Then why, at death, would we turn the body over to private industry?"
The professionals asked their questions:
How much compost would one person make? An estimated cubic yard, but she's still working with researchers on that question.
Would it be a nonprofit? Probably.
What would happen to the compost people didn't pick up, or if they couldn't use a cubic yard? Perhaps there could be partnerships with the city or ecological nonprofits.
Would there be opportunities for volunteers? Probably.
Would people get the bones back? No, they decompose as well.
What about artificial hips and pacemakers? According to the current design, sorting out nonorganic material would happen at the end of the process.
Do you have a business manager or business plan? No, she doesn't, not yet. The professionals seemed to think she needed to work on that.
"It's not fun," Jorgenson told her. "You like design and anthropology, but you need a business manager."
They talked about how to market a project that was asking people to fundamentally rethink what they do with their dead. "Think of the cremation party line," Doughty said. "'It's simple, it's easy, it's better for the environment.' It's difficult to call it marketing or branding, but that's what it is." She suggested lines of inquiry for the Urban Death Project, like: "Why isn't my body going back to the earth? Why am I holding onto my body? Why am I so afraid of nature?"
Menkin said the Urban Death Project needs to define itself to people. "If it's seen as burial, that's a big problem," Jorgenson said. Seattle's most recent city charter has forbidden the establishment of any new cemeteries within city limits. (Seattle city archivist Scott Cline explains that cemeteries have always been a subject of debate in city charters—in part, he says, "because they take up space and they're not a good source of tax revenue.")
The Urban Death Project, Jorgenson said, should try to get itself into the public consciousness as soon as possible so people can get used to the idea. "When somebody dies and a body is heading toward room temperature," he said, "that is not the time when people say, 'You know what? Let's do something innovative.'"
They all pointed out that it takes time for the culture to adjust to new ideas about death care. "Cremation took 20 years to catch on," Doughty said, referring to Jessica Mitford's 1963 book The American Way of Death, which battered the conventional funeral industry and advocated for cremation. "If you're the death-positive warrior, even in your own family," she said, "just be prepared to get shot down multiple times."
Whenever I asked anyone in the alt-death movement how they got there, they said things like "It's a bit of an odd story" or "Well, it's not a quick, sound-bite answer" or "I don't know how to answer that in a nutshell." They all—to a person—had a story that was personal and largely accidental. Often it involved the death of a young person who'd had the opportunity to take advantage of some of the newer aspects of death care (hospice, home funerals) and demonstrated how things could be done differently.
Brian Flowers had a slightly different path. He was a cabinet and furniture maker when his employer learned their business license also authorized them to make caskets. Flowers was intrigued, started researching the possibility of making caskets from local, sustainably harvested wood, and was hooked. "Pretty soon, I was boring the guys at work," he says, "waxing philosophical about the Cartesian mind-body duality and how nothing epitomizes our divorce from the natural world more than contemporary burial processes—pumping a body full of chemicals, sealing it in metal, then sealing it again in concrete, ostensibly to protect it from the elements."
Eventually, he was waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about our cultural relationship with death, and realized he had to do something about it. Moles Farewell Tributes was run by an old family friend, so he approached him to see about an internship or a job. Now he's their green funeral director.
"I believe with every fiber of my being that the fear of death is our greatest enemy and has driven us to the brink of cultural destruction," he says. "We can't heal our relationship with the world until we heal our relationship with death. And Katrina's project, done well, could help with that."
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