These Women Want to Change What Happens to Your Corpse

Founded by architect Katrina Spade, the Urban Death Project aims to make the way we dispose of dead bodies more economical, environmental, and emotionally in-touch. At a project fundraiser in Seattle this weekend, it seemed like she just might succeed.

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Feb 16 2016, 8:25pm

All photos by Lindsay Martin

I met death relatively early. When I was 13, my grandfather legally took his own life; he had been suffering from cancer, and Oregon offered him the option of assisted suicide. I remember the night he chose to pass. I was leaving, and when he hugged me I started to cry. "You mustn't be sad," he told me in his stern German accent. "I'm dying surrounded by my family. What a gift. One I'm not even sure I deserve."

When your Holocaust-surviving grandfather tells you not to be sad, you listen. That experience gave me a unique perspective on death, comforting me other times mortality touched my life. Nevertheless, death is still a taboo topic in our society, often considered repulsive or scary instead of a great uniting experience. So when I walked into the Urban Death Project's fundraising event last weekend, I expected a more somber tone. What I found instead were people who enthusiastically embraced the universality of dying, and who had joined together as a community in an attempt to transform the death industry.

Read more: A Match Made in Heaven: The Tinder for People Who Work with Death

The requirements for legal disposition, or the processing of human remains, are very strict according to Washington State legislation, and the same is true in almost every other state. When death graces your life with its unbiased presence you have two options: dispose of the body by fire, or pump it full of chemicals, put it in a fancy box, and drop it into a hole. ("Except in cases of dissection.") Sometimes, bodies are even embalmed before they are cremated, adding to the toxicity of the smoke. But the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project, Katrina Spade, has another idea entirely.

According to its website, the Urban Death Project's mission "is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological urban alternative for the care of the deceased," and Spade's hope is that "the project can be a solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries, a sustainable method of disposing of our dead, and a new ritual for laying our loved ones to rest." The practical application of these goals sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick-like future: The flagship of Spade's idea is a three-story building erected in the center of Seattle that would utilize the process of composting to dispose of dead bodies—to "safely and gently turn our deceased into soil-building material." Friends and family would bring their dead here, escorting the bodies of their loved ones up a central circular ramp to the top of what people involved in the project refer to as the "core," or the central decomposition chamber. To those familiar with the area, it makes sense that the project would be based in Seattle; you won't find compostable waste in the trash here.

The Urban Death Project will be like a spa for the dead.

This weekend's fundraiser was intended to help take the project out of the design phase and into reality. I arrived around 6 PM at small venue called Sole Repair just off of the Pike-Pine corridor in Seattle's notoriously boozy Capital Hill. As I walked into the warmth of the fundraiser and out of the unnaturally moderate February weather, I was greeted by a number of volunteers and donors. The night began with a silent auction, but the air was hardly still: Voices buzzed in friendly, enthusiastic conversation. Donors bid on a variety of items, such as local art (there was a fervent battle over a small, stuffed, red felted pig), astrology readings, and an estate-planning session. Many of the people gathered that evening were contributors to the Urban Death Project's Kickstarter campaign, which raised a whopping $91,378 in donations from all over the world last year to get the project up and running. Attendees laughed warmly with one another as they talked about death.

Before the live auction started, I met 92-year-old Darby Worth, who had traveled all the way from Marina, California, to show her support for Spade's project. Worth, known to her friends for her radical honestly, informed me that she's been doggedly petitioning her city to allow her to bury herself in her own front yard, but to no avail. When a friend sent her a copy of an article about Spade's efforts to change the status quo for burial, Worth jumped on board and contacted Spade directly. She fully embraces Spade's vision, chuckling that "the Urban Death Project will be like a spa for the dead."

Urban Death Project founder Katrina Spade with Darby Worth at this weekend's fundraiser

When the night's events began, Spade addressed the room with a vulnerability that captivated the audience. Her voice rose passionately as she began to unpack her plans for the Urban Death Project. "We take so much from the earth," she said to the room. "We should be giving back." Natural burial is a beautiful option in a rural setting, she said, but it's not sustainable in an urban space. In the city, it's easy to forget we're part of the ecosystem. "Nature is important when we are dying or grieving," Spade stressed, but the current legal options for burial are far from natural.

"We do death and dying so poorly in this culture," she said. "There is so much potential for positive change."

Although her project may initially sound idealistic, or strange, it's true that death in the United States needs a renovation. Spade and her guest speaker Caitlin Doughty, a member of the Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industrial professionals, academics, and artists who are committed to encouraging an open conversation about death, both estimate that the average cost of a funeral falls between $8,000 and $10,000. (According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost for a funeral in 2014 was $7,181.) According to Simon Khin, the commissioner at Seattle's Immigrant and Refugee Commission, many immigrants and refugees in the United States say that death is one of their biggest fears simply because their family could not afford what is required by what Doughty refers to as the "funeral industrial complex." Once the compositing initiative is up and running, the Urban Death Project's services would be offered on a sliding scale with a median cost of around $2,500. Spade stressed that "no one should be turned away—everyone should have access to beautiful, meaningful death care."

When Doughty, who is also a mortician, author, blogger, and YouTube personality, took the stage, a respectful hush fell over the crowd. Doughty, for all that she is both approachable and humble, is somewhat of a celebrity in the close-knit death care community. She founded the Order of the Good Death in 2011, with the hope of folding a productive discussion about death into pop culture, and her web series, "Ask a Mortician," has received a lot of attention in a world where death is often seen as a taboo subject. Her alternative views have mixed with her surreal, offbeat sense of humor to help instigate the discussion about death that she has longed for. Doughty explained to me that she ended up in her current position "by speaking out, consistently, for the last five years."

"Obviously the Internet has enhanced my ability to do that 100 percent," Doughty said. "I've been able to travel the world and give hundreds of interviews, but some days it feels impossible to enact change and beat the funeral industrial complex. Death takes so long to shift, but it will shift. We just need people to keep banging the drum for better, more intimate, greener options."

Spade celebrating the fundraising with speaker Caitlin Doughty

In her speech, Doughty told the crowd a story about a retirement home employee who accidentally threw out a dead body; the employee had mistaken it for a mannequin because, in America, we don't know what death looks like. Doughty also spoke about how, in the death care industry, "there is a thin line between quack and genius revolutionary." Deviating from the norm of traditional burial or cremation is often met with disapproval, and it takes a certain amount of bravery to stand up for unconventional death care practices. That is what brought Doughty to this fundraiser: She believes in Katrina Spade, who walks that thin line with poise and finesse.

In April, Spade, who is an architect herself, will meet with a number of other architects and engineers to design a prototype of the core system that the project proposes to have built by summer. Miles away from the stereotype of the dour funeral director, Spade is quick to smile, and clearly adored by everyone involved in the Urban Death Project.

Read more: Death in the House of Wax

After the speakers finished, I mingled for a while, talking to a number of donors as well as a few people working on the project. All the while, I sipped on a drink called "someday I'll be a lemon drop," a pun on one of the Urban Death Project's mottos, "someday I'll be a lemon tree." I left the event that night feeling alive, yet comfortable with my mortality. What was once, according to Spade, "a breath of a design idea about how to do death care better" has transformed into an ongoing community effort, and an open dialogue about death.

As I walked home, my hand wrapped around the early Valentine that Darby Worth had slipped me during our conversation, the only one I would receive this year. It was a picture of a tree and said, "Someday I'll be soil. Be my Valentine. Rest in peat."