Urban Death Project Founder Makes Case for Composting Human Bodies: I'm Proposing to Do It in a 'Beautiful and Natural' Way

"Composting is creating the right environment for nature to do its job," Katrina Spade tells PEOPLE

Photo: Katrina Spade

The Urban Death Project, a plan to begin human composting, is gaining momentum in Seattle.

Katrina Spade, 37, came up with the idea of building a three-story infrastructure that will house human bodies and high-carbon material. She estimates it would take four to six weeks for a body to be composted.

Spade, a Seattle resident who has a degree in architecture, originally explored the possibility of human composting in her graduate school thesis at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in March that has received more than $91,000.

“What I’m proposing is a very, very natural process that will happen to our bodies unless we are cremated,” Spade tells PEOPLE. “I’m proposing to do it in a certain way that I find really kind of beautiful and natural.”

Spade is proposing a replicable core to house human bodies while they decompose. The system will function the same way in every state and can be replicated city-by-city. She also thought to create spaces within the building where families can pay respects to their loved ones before the composting begins.

“Composting is creating the right environment for nature to do its job,” Spade explains. “In this case, the environment is the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Our bodies are made of nitrogen, among other things, and wood chips are very high in carbon, so when you have the right ratio of nitrogen plus oxygen and moisture, we are creating the right environment for nature to do its job – nature in this case being microbes and beneficial bacteria.”

During the first stage of the process, bodies move downward due to gravity in the core and because of the composting process, the materials in the core – wood chips and bodies – are decomposing and compacting, Spade explains.

“Over time, the bodies settle in the core, transforming as they move downwards from human into soil,” Spade says. “Once they’ve turned into a course compost material – no longer recognizable as human, but not as finished as the compost you might buy at the store – there’s a second stage where there’ll be screening and sorting for titanium tips and golden teeth.”

The process is currently undergoing a series of testing at Western Carolina University, where there is a human decomposition facility. Scientists recently buried a 78-year-old woman – who chose to donate her body to science after her death – in wood chips to see how long it takes to compost.

“We’re working to see what the best material is to use and if different species of wood make a difference,” Spade says.

Each human body can create about 1 cubic yard of compost, she adds.

To work out the legal barriers that are associated with this type of project, Spade partnered with Professor Tanya Marsh at Wake Forest University School of Law in North Carolina.

Marsh, who teaches the first and only funeral and cemetery law class, says she reached out to Spade after hearing about her Kickstarter campaign.

“All my brain would process are the legal issues Katrina would have to confront,” Marsh tells PEOPLE. “I didn t want to sit by the sidelines and point out problems, so I reached out to help support her.”

Marsh’s fall semester class plans to work state-by-state to find out how this type of process can be included in the options for disposing a dead body.

“How you can dispose a dead human body is not a federal law, it’s a state law, so it varies state-by-state,” Marsh says. “We’re beginning to create a series of legal memos per state so we understand how each state regulates and what the best method would be for us to include composting on the list.”

Due to the success of her Kickstarter campaign, Spade and her team are moving forward with the second phase of design and engineering for the core. She hopes to break ground for the first facility – most likely in Seattle – in 2020.

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