Katrina Spade ‘99 Talks "Recomposition"
The Haverford Innovations Program brought the former anthropology major to campus to discuss the sustainability focus and entrepreneurial spirit that led her to found a public-benefit corporation that wants to convert human remains to soil.
Katrina Spade ‘99 returned to campus to talk about Recompose, a public-benefit corporation that is developing a process that gently converts human remains into soil, in order to nourish new life after we die. The soil can then be used in different ways, according to the deceased's wishes—put in a favorite spot in nature, placed in an urn, or used as the soil for a rosebush. The goal of the company, of which Spade is founder and CEO, is to offer "recompositon" as a sustainable alternative to cremation or conventional burial.
“This process is less than half of what I’m trying to do,” said Spade during her talk, explaining that the vision of Recompose would begin at the moment of collecting the body and that she imagines this project as a way of changing the current death culture. “Recompose is a project working to redesign the death-care experience. That means both what happens to our bodies and how hands-on loved ones can be during the process.”
Spade was inspired by Jewish and Muslim burial practices, which involve family members being part of the process of preparing the body for burial. This is distinct from the majority of American funeral practices, in which a funeral home is in charge of caring for the body.
Prior to Recompose, the former anthropology major created and ran the Urban Death Project, a nonprofit she founded where she first explored the idea of turning human remains into compost. (She dissolved it in order to start Recompose.)
Her campus visit, which was sponsored by the Haverford Innovation Program (HIP), spanned three days, during which she gave two presentations, met with students, and visited classes.
“I thought Katrina had a lot of incredible insights," said Callie Kennedy ‘18, who attended Spade's first on-campus talk. "I also thought it was cool that she didn’t come from a specialty or specific background, but that she got into this ‘death-care’ work on her own after seeing a gap in the funeral industry. It was powerful to see the solution she created.”
Kennedy learned about the talk in Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Joshua Moses' "Place, People, and Collaborative Research in the Urban Environment" class, but Spade had been on her radar since she first read about her in the spring/summer 2015 issue of Haverford magazine.
“It’s been really sweet to be back. It’s felt very comfortable and welcoming," said Spade of returning to her alma mater for the first time in two decades. "One of the things I like about being back at Haverford is that I was excited to talk to students about starting a business that is mission-driven and founding a company that is truly heart-aligned. I figured that Haverford students would really get that and understand it.”
Creating a sustainable alternative to burial or cremation has been a calling of sorts for Spade, who says that Recompose serves both her passion for design and her itch to solve problems.
“I love designing—both looking at spaces and also the design of systems and operations," she said. "I also have this impulse where I get a little angry when I see a problem that could be solved but hasn’t yet been. When looking at the funeral industry and the lack of options for people, it got me thinking that there is no reason why people shouldn’t have more options. It felt like a bit of challenge to design at least one more option for people.”
Though her background is not directly related to the funeral industry, her expertise is in probem-solving, thinking big, and project management.
“I’m the expert of basically nothing,” Spade joked. “My role, in general, is finding the right people, and moving the project forward with everyone. I don’t design science, but I do get to be hands on with it.”
The formation of Recompose was, therefore, an organic process. While completing her master's in architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she worked on different ideas related to composting and funeral facilities. The first member of her team was Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, who is now Recompose's head of research. Carpenter-Boggs had written a paper on livestock mortality composting, and when Spade called her to ask her questions about that work and how it could possibly relate to human "recomposing," a future partnership was born. The team, which now includes nine others, grew from there.
“I didn’t know about typical burial practices across the world and I didn’t know that the U.S. and Canada do embalming at a much higher rate than other countries—I thought that was practiced everywhere," said Kennedy of Spade's on-campus talk. "Another thing I learned was that both cremation and conventional burial are around the same in their large carbon footprint.”
Just as the Haverford students in attendance at her events were inspired by Spade, so was Spade inspired by her time at Haverford. Her anthropology major serves her well in her current work—“I do think that when you look at the project, it’s all about culture and space and that this focus started with that discipline,” she said—and also a course she took with now-retired professor Kaye Edwards.
"I can’t remember the name of the class, because it was 20 years ago, but it [was about how] you don’t have to be a scientist to be in science," said Spade. "What I took from it was that I’m not a scientist, I’m never going to be crunching the numbers, but science is everywhere and there are different ways to work with it. I feel that is what I’m doing now, working in concert with research and science, but in a different role.”
Up next for Recompose is legalizing its process—which is safe, but can be challenging to the entrenched ideas of the funeral-practices industry—in Washington state. Spade is optimistic about it. Recomposition is a natural process and, in Spade’s words, “Nature is really good at death.”