Conventional options of burial or cremation when we die don’t meet Katrina Spade’s values of not polluting or using up more of the planet’s resources. That's why she founded the Urban Death Project.

Share story

“I had this epiphany as a thirty-something, that I was going to die someday,” says Seattle-based architectural designer Katrina Spade. As she watched her children, (then 2 and 5 years old) grow up day to day, she thought about a time when they would be 40 years old. And that she would be 70. And that she would eventually die.

She began to look into the options we have for our corpses when we die, and the spaces and rituals associated with them: hardwood caskets, concrete vaults in the ground, carbon-emitting cremation, formaldehyde embalming, claiming a piece of real estate in the Earth as your own for eternity.

“The conventional options didn’t resonate with me,” says Spade. Like many people interested in the growing alternative death-care industry, she wanted a sustainable option so her values in life would carry on into her death.

While attending graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Spade developed the idea for the Urban Death Project, a system that would turn dead human bodies — bones and all, in a matter of months — into nutrient-rich, soil-building compost.

She pitches the idea as not only a method to dispose of bodies in cities, but also a physical space in cities for rituals and reflection.

Recently, she ran a weeklong design intensive hosted by Seattle architecture firm Olson Kundig as part of the company’s “Creative Exchange” initiative, which invites outside creators to work in the office and interact with staff. She brought together architects, engineers and experts — including soil scientist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs from Washington State University, who sits on the board of the Urban Death Project — to design the “core,” the structural part of an Urban Death Project facility in which bodies are turned into soil.

Spade hopes to build the first human-composting facility in Seattle. But first, she needs to finish the design and fund the construction of the prototype core system to test and study. She is planning for a location near Pullman to be close to WSU, where Carpenter-Boggs studies livestock mortality composting.

One challenge for the research is that, currently, composting human bodies is not legal in Washington. So the research must be done with animals, even though animal corpses are structurally different from human ones, says Carpenter-Boggs.

“If we love our city, why should we have to leave it when we die?” Spade asks. “We can be folded back into the city and become part of it.”

Watch the video above to learn more about the Urban Death Project and the architectural design process.


Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect job title for Ms. Spade. She is an architectural designer.