When I die, fold me into the city - An interview with Katrina Spade
Dirt. Decomposition. Decay. Not words that inspire a great sense of comfort, especially when the topic at hand is the human body. Decomposition, however, is one of nature’s most vital processes, breaking down organic matter so that it can be reused by other organisms. It is the unsung hero of new life; recycling’s slightly odd-smelling uncle. Under the right conditions, the human body can be fully composted within a few months, leaving nothing but a nutrient rich soil and perhaps the odd golden tooth.
When you die in the west, most notably in North America, the natural decomposition process is slowed to a grinding halt before the body has reached room temperature. This is what usually happens: A funeral director arrives at your home dressed in a suit, and your body is transported to a mortuary, where an embalmer wearing “personal protective equipment” can get to work on your corpse (Park-Mustacchio). Through a small incision, the blood is drained from your body and replaced with embalming fluid, giving your skin a “rosy appearance.” Remaining bodily fluids are then sucked from the cavity of your cadaver, and cotton wool inserted into orifices to prevent any tell-tale leakage and to give the mouth a “natural expression.” Presumably meaning a lifelike expression; the expression of somebody who is not dead, but sleeping. Ironic, considering death is one of the most natural things we will ever experience.
To reiterate, your body is pumped full of a carcinogenic chemical and then sealed in a casket made of wood or metal, before being placed into a concrete vault and thus protected from those pesky elements. Eventually, you will liquefy.
The desire to preserve the body is age old and I’m sure there is comfort in this practise for some. I also believe that this method of burial epitomises our alienated relationship with death and with our environment. Each year in the US alone, enough metal is used for burials to build the golden gate bridge, enough wood to build 1,800 single family homes, and enough embalming fluid to fill 8 Olympic sized swimming pools (CBC News). Cremation is significantly less harmful to the environment, but still accounts for approximately 540 pounds of co2 per body. Of course, these statistics are dwarfed when compared to the amount we pollute and consume in a lifetime, but couldn’t our final gesture be more meaningful?
The death care industry has been one of the least innovative since the industrial revolution, and I suspect that this is partially due to the cultural taboos surrounding death. While there is no room in this article to discuss death-as-taboo in detail, it seems as though death as a mundane, everyday occurrence was more openly debated when life spans were shorter and death was more evident in society (Peacock). If we think about representations and discussions of death in contemporary society, it is more often a sensationalised and unfortunate event than an essential and necessary eventuality. As a result, end-of-life wishes are less frequently discussed, and people may fall back on tired rituals that don’t necessarily reflect their needs and beliefs. The funeral industry has to upsell in order to make a living, making it difficult for the bereaved to deviate from the norm. Besides, the urge to be bold and innovative is unlikely to strike in the immediate and emotionally gruelling aftermath of loss.
Where our communities used to be built around death, around churches and graveyards, these spaces have now been inched out toward the suburbs and industrial areas. Along with death as a mundane topic of conversation, death as an intrinsic part of our cities has become obscured. In recent years, however, the conversation has been changing; death cafes are popping up across Europe, the natural burial movement is gaining ground and the question of overflowing cemeteries is demanding our attention. The natural burial movement, in which the body is able to decompose naturally, is ideal for rural folk or those who choose the countryside as their final resting place. But what about an option for city dwellers? What about bringing death back to our communities?
Katrina Spade, founder of The Urban Death Project, noticed this lack in death care options while researching for her Architecture MA. I interviewed Katrina to find out more about the project, and asked how she came to the idea. “It occurred to me that many people, when they died, were taken out of the city. Either you’re taken out of the city and cremated and sprinkled into the ocean or you’re taken out of the city to some bucolic place where nature is very apparent. Lots of cemeteries are outside of the city, at least slightly. And I started to wonder why that was the case, and started to ask whether there was a critical connection for us, as people who are grieving or people who are about to die: do we need to be connected to nature in some way that is important to us? So part of this project came from thinking, instead of taking us out of the city when we die, how can we fold ourselves back into the city that we lived in and that we love?” For Spade, the city and nature are not mutually exclusive. When Spade talks about nature, she’s not necessarily talking about flowering meadows and bleating lambs, but about the “creation of soil, which is that really amazing, dirty, magical process where soil is created by decomposition.” And there, the seed was planted. Spade designed an urban composting centre for human bodies. “Eventually,” asserts one of the project’s advertising slogans, “I’ll be a lemon tree.”
The main element of the facility designed by Spade is the three-storey core at its centre, which is where the composting process happens, that dirty and magical transformation from human to humus. In Spade’s design, the top of the core has 10 bays for bodies to be “laid in,” marking the beginning of their transformation. The basic process will go something like this: Each facility will have refrigerated spaces where bodies can be temporarily stored. When it’s time, the family and friends of the deceased can wash and shroud the body, with the help of the UDP’s supportive staff. The body is then carried up the ramp circling the core and laid into the woodchips. The point up until the “laying in” can be embellished according to the mourner’s wishes: “Family and friends can add to that with music, silence, whatever feels right for them. But the ritual is completely driven by the need and the reality of beginning the body’s transformation from human to soil. It is purely driven by that process.”
Allowing the loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye to the body with this very intimate and caring gesture of washing and shrouding helps to unravel the myth that corpses are somehow dangerous. As Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company states: “Dead bodies are nowhere near as tricky as the big funeral corps would have you believe. You can’t hurt them, they just need to be kept cool. You can disrespect them, but they are beyond pain. You can touch them, undress them and thank them, and if you think you have the authority, shout at them.” There’s an honesty and a saltiness to this approach which appeals to me, and speaks simultaneously to the “everydayness” of death and the human need for ceremony. No one can claim to know what is right for anyone else in the face of loss, but a wider variety of death care options should surely be available.
Each centre will be different from city to city, neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Spade “likes to imagine them on a scale of library branches,” and wants each building to be representative of its surroundings, both aesthetically and culturally. Each facility will be designed according to a “tool kit” put together by Spade, but these elements can be incorporated in totally different ways according to the architects, the city, the neighbourhood and the space. The tool kit will contain “both the very specific engineering specs for the system, but also guidelines of the types of rooms you want. You’re going to want three refrigerated spaces and every space should have gardens growing from the compost created on site. I love the idea of all of them looking completely different but having the same system and function inside.” Theoretically, these buildings could be one of the touchstones of a community; a municipally owned space where life, death, decay and growth are celebrated.
Throughout the conversation, we flit between terms; building, facility, centre. It’s hard to know what to name a thing that has never existed. “It’s not a stretch to say that this is a new type of architecture, but it’s also a new type of programme for cities. We don’t have places like this at all. Right now, the only thing we have that’s anything to do with the deceased in cities is crematories, which have become these industrial, unwelcoming places. And then we have funeral homes which are a little bit uninspired and maybe a bit dowdy. This is a completely different function; a hybrid of functions. My favourite way to think about it is as part indoor park, part museum; it’s definitely a place you’d have on your itinerary if you were visiting the city, but it’s also a place you’d visit on your lunch break.” I imagine these buildings as animated and dynamic spaces, filled with life and death and the cycles which connect them.
When I spoke to my brother about the project, he was horrified: “Why would I want to rub up against my fellow humans in death when I’ve been so solitary in life?” This kind of squeamishness about the project seems common, and I get it. Cremation took about two decades to catch on in the US, and individuation in western death care has always been paramount. In the Urban Death Project, bodies aren’t exactly composted collectively. Each body is separated by about 10 feet of wood chips, and the “slight mixing” doesn’t occur until the very end of the process, when a final screening is done for inorganic matter. When you take your loved ones soil at the end of the process, you’ll get most of the deceased and a little bit of their neighbour. Technically, composting could be done individually, but this was one point of the project on which Katrina was not willing to compromise: “I think the communal thing is really beautiful, so I did it on purpose. I think we need to get away from the idea that we’re disconnected from everyone else and the natural world. So I wanted to incorporate that idea into the design. Imagine how transformative it would be to reconceptualise those things - this is not just about how you dispose of a body.” We may be solitary in life, but surely our physical individuation ends with death. There might be solace in knowing that we’re part of something bigger.
The core of the building will be made of polished concrete. Due to the incredible heat created by the decomposition process, the core will be warm to the touch. This moment in our conversation astounded me. “Walking into this building and being confronted with this core and putting your hands on the concrete and feeling the warmth that’s created as people decompose inside - I mean, that’s disrupting I think, in the best way.” In contrast to the dull familiarity of the graveyard, this warm core is a literal and visceral affirmation of life and death; of life in death. That is what decomposition is, an extremely animated process involving a range of beneficial bacteria and microbes. “When I started to think about the cycle of life - that big circle with the arrows around it - I thought that, wow, you know half of that cycle is death and decomposition and decay, and that’s what creates soil and that’s what creates new life, and yet culturally, we’re terrified of those processes. So this project is part an ode to decomposition. How can we love it again and give it the honour it deserves and celebrate it right in the middle of our cities and weave it right into the fabric of what’s going on.” The Urban Death Project is an ode to that magical and dirty process of decomposition, but it’s also an ode to death as a mundane and miraculous part of life, and an ode to the cities that we live in and love. When I die, fold me in, weave me in to my city.
Become a lemon tree, visit www.urbandeathproject.org.
Callender, Rupert, and Claire Callender. "It's What She Would Have Wanted." TedxTotnes. Totnes. TedxTotnes
CBC News. "Urban Death Project: A Case for Composting Your Dead Body." CBC News. N.p., 04 May 2014.
Park-Mustacchio, Jenn. "I've Been an Embalmer for 14 Years and See My Share of Bodies. Any Questions?" The Guardian. Guardian News & Media, 24 Oct. 2013.
Peacock, Louisa. "The Real Reasons Why Death Is Still so Hard to Talk about with Your Loved Ones." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 13 May 2014.