Copyright STACKEDD Magazine, 4/29/2015

Forever & Always: Katrina Spade and the Urban Death Project

The “Eventually” series by artist Iris Gottlieb is one the rewards offered by the Urban Death Project’s Kickstarter Campaign.

Katrina Spade is a modern day Persephone. She spends half her time amongst the dead, studying human decomposition, and half her time amongst the living, designing and advocating for a new model of death and dying.

If you need a refresher in Greek mythology, Hades abducts Persephone, beloved daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, into the underworld to be his queen. Lost in grief and in search of her daughter, Demeter neglects the earth and the soil becomes barren. Finally, Persephone is allowed to return to her mother on the surface, but because she ate the fruit of the underworld Persephone must return there for half of each year, living between worlds.

Seemingly, the lesson in this myth mirrors what the patriarchy has been telling women since time immemorial: what happens underground stays underground. The realm of death and darkness is not suitable for women, and to return to the underworld, the land beneath the soil, where nothing grows, is a punishment.

They obviously weren’t hip to composting — the act of mixing natural waste with the earth to create nutrient-rich soil that will in turn nurture a garden full of food.

It could be argued that, like a nurse log, this most natural cycle of composting dead materials into something new and nourishing is essentially feminine. Farmers have been composting dead livestock for eons. The City of Seattle recently made it illegal to throw away food compost. Why should human bodies be any different?

The Urban Death Project comes from the mind of Katrina Spade, an architect by training who landed in Seattle with her partner and two children by way of the East Coast. Spade has powerful support in her corner, including a grant from Echoing Green and numerous advocates in the field of death and dying.

“I like to look at death care as the end of a continuum that includes birth through healthcare through dying and then all the way to death care,” Spade said.

The Urban Death Project is a method for communal composting of human bodies (see HERE for a detailed description and diagram), and in addition to its environmental benefits, the project is also a beautiful confrontation of capitalistic norms around death and individualism.

“It’s one of the problems with American culture and Western culture,” she explains, “this idea that we’re all individuals and we all get our own plot of land that we will own forever, and our own body will be right there with our name on it.”

Enormous amounts of concrete, embalming fluid, and carbon dioxide enter the world when 2.5 million Americans are buried or cremated each year. The strongest resistance for Spade, besides the ick factor, comes from a deeply entrenched system of businesses that benefit from the existing model of dying: funeral homes that sell $10,000 caskets and thousands of employees trained in embalming and other funereal practices. If we composted our loved ones after they died, these businesses would evaporate.

If Spade has her way, death care would be a part of healthcare, and the act of dying would be mostly free. She may be an entrepreneur, but she feels strongly that death is too sacred to be monetized. “I wouldn’t be looking for a tie-in with for-profits,” she said. “The for-profit industry is based on selling needless consumables to people who are vulnerable. I think that is a fundamentally flawed system.”

But the Urban Death Project is not only about bettering the environment or revolutionizing death care. It’s also about strengthening community. To illustrate her point, Spade compares her project’s model and the library system.

“Say libraries didn’t exist and someone said, ‘I think we should have a place where people can go, and for free you can take out any book, any book in the world. You can also use the bathroom, use the internet, just sit there the whole day if you want to. And it would be funded by taxpayers.’ People would be like, that is the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard!”

The truth is that with the Urban Death Project, Spade has gone far beyond even the cutting edge of society’s comfort zone, but her idea stands upon the principles of science, hope for the future of our planet, and an abiding sense of dignity and equality for all humankind.

If we teach future generations about the importance of decomposition and decay to all life on the planet, they might treat the planet differently. Until we realize that to ignore death is to ignore one of life’s most powerful sources of growth and nourishment, we are missing an opportunity to benefit our planet in death as well as in life.

You can support the Urban Death Project via Kickstarter here. The most popular perk is a t-shirt that says “Future Tree.”