A Kickstarter for Composting Your Corpse, Because Dead Humans Are Killing Earth

It's a smarter idea than you think.

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Mar 31 2015, 10:00am

Images: the Urban Death Project, used with permission

It turns out that the two most popular American funeral rites are also terrible for the Earth, but don't worry, because there's ​a Kickstarter campaign working on the problem. The Urban Death Project wants to put you back in the "circle of life," because your ass is potentially grass.

As the Urban Death Initiative's founder, Katrina Spade, explains in the group's pitch video, 2.5 million Americans die every year. Not content to let the last interaction between human and Earth be one of pollution—death has enough downsides as it is—Spade instead envisions people composting their loved ones' corporeal remains, in three-story Urban Death Project facilities.

Most of us are either cremated—an energy-intensive process requiring temperatures up around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit that releases millions of pounds carbon dioxide and thousands of pounds of mercury into the atmosphere every year—or we're buried.

In preparation for burial, a typical adult body is embalmed with 3.5 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde before being buried in a wooden casket. Spade says that annually we're burying "enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools."

Now, these aren't new problems, and other solutions have been explored and even patented, including freeze-drying and vacuum-packing bodies like some sort of new type of mummy.

In the Urban Death Project's plan, bodies are put into a composting "core" where they then turn into soil, and the soil then can be used to grow trees.

Death is still a very ritualized occasion, and so it's understandable if that seems totally bonkers. But to their credit, while the Urban Death Project doesn't have a grave at the end, it leaves room for a funeral service, before the body is lowered into the three-story core. I emailed Spade to see how that would work.

"Bodies will be refrigerated after death until the day of a ceremony (because embalming has no part in the process, remember)," she said. "On that day, the few people closest to the deceased would be met by supportive staff and helped to wash and shroud the body in a simple linen wrap. On the day of the ceremony, the friends and family carry the body to the top of the core and cover it with woodchips, which begins its transformation from human to soil (and then, someday, to tree!)."

Spade said that they were still determining how long it takes for a human body to turn into soil, but she said they estimated it would take around 4 to 6 weeks. Dental fillings, prosthetics, and other non-organic material would have to be filtered out.

The Kickstarter goes to further developing the process, which isn't finalized yet. There's an understandable dearth of research on how to properly compost a human body. Spade told me that the goal is to have the first facility in Seattle up and running in three to five years.

For whatever its worth, the Kickstarter prizes for this project are pretty hilarious, if you're the type of person who thinks that wearing a shirt declaring yourself to be "Future Compost" is funny.