Katrina Mogielnicki Spade '99: A New Idea About Death
When Katrina Mogielnicki Spade '99 combined her interests in anthropology and sustainable architecture, she found her way to this: the Urban Death Project.
The founder and director of the Seattle-based nonprofit has become a leading proponent of turning human remains into compost, a natural alternative, she argues, to conventional burial or cremation. She even has plans for a new type of funeral home that will include a three-story core full of wood chips.
“I like to think of it as setting up the perfect environment for nature to do its work,” says Spade, 37, who has been awarded a prestigious 2014 Echoing Green Climate Fellowship to bring her idea to fruition.
Burial and, to a lesser degree, cremation can harm the environment, says Spade.“Every year, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge and enough wood to build 18 single homes,” she says, adding that formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid can seep into groundwater. Even cremation releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide per body into the atmosphere.
Spade's Urban Death Project, which was the subject of a story in The New York Times' science section in April, asks why we bury or cremate our dead when those bodies could be“literally transformed into a new form of energy that could grow new life.”
After working in sustainability, Spade earned a certificate in sustainable building and design from Vermont's Yestermorrow Design/Build School. Its executive director is Kate Stephenson '00, who sits on Spade's board.
The Urban Death Project bloomed from research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where Spade got a master's in architecture in 2013. While there, she built and monitored a compost heating system that got her thinking about decomposition. Around the same time, the thirtysomething realized she was going to die one day.
Spade began researching options to dispose of the deceased and, not caring for conventional methods, designed an alternative for cities with overcrowded cemeteries. Composting was at its core; her thesis included a funeral facility design.
“There are people who say 'Eww!' at first,” says Spade, who founded the nonprofit last year.“The word compost brings to mind banana peels and coffee grounds.”
But, she points out, farmers have long composted livestock carcasses. Bodies placed in wood chips with moisture decompose with the help of microbial activity.“If you could do this with a 2,000-pound steer, you could compost a human body,” Spade says.
The idea might seem unsettling at first.“It will take a cultural shift in the way we think about taking care of our loved ones' remains in order for composting to become commonplace,” says Cheryl A. Johnston, an associate professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University and director of its Forensic Osteology Research Station, a decomposition facility, which is working with Spade to refine the process. Currently, two donated bodies are decomposing among wood chips at the station.
Spade imagines an intimate, natural process. At a core facility, family would wash the body and wrap it in a shroud. Then, the body would be carried to the top of the core and lowered inside, onto a bed of wood chips. Spade estimates decomposition would take two to four weeks. The compost material could be saved (like ashes) or used in a garden.
“It is very strange and unfamiliar,” says Seattle funeral director Nora Menkin, who is also on the Urban Death Project board,“but so was cremation 50 years ago.”
Spade plans to build the first human composting facility by 2020 in Seattle.“The strategy,” she says,“is to keep talking about it.”
â€”Lini S. Kadaba