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The Urban Death Project: Laying Our Loved Ones to Reborn

The Urban Death Project is raising funds to support the ongoing design and implementation of a new option for laying our loved ones to rest. It’s a way for our deaths to be more like our lives – full of meaning and a deep respect for the earth. It’s also a way that we can continue living on in our communities, even after we’ve died.

What is the Urban Death Project?

The Urban Death Project is a new system that utilizes the natural process of decomposition to safely and gently turn our deceased into the soil. The project is creating a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative to existing options for the care of the dead. By funding this Kickstarter Campaign, you will join people around the world who believe that:

  • Death is a remarkable human event
  • Our bodies are full of life-giving potential
  • There is deep meaning in giving back to the earth after we have died
  • Every person has the right to sustainable, meaningful death care

Why do we need a new option for our bodies when we die?

Every day that we are living, we take in nutrients from the world around us. When we die, our physical bodies are full of potential, and we can give those nutrients back to the earth.

The problem is that our current funeral model is toxic and polluting. In the US alone, two and a half million people die each year, and 50% choose conventional burial. This means that most often, their bodies are embalmed and then buried in a casket in a concrete-lined grave in a cemetery.

Because of this, each year, we bury 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.

Cremation, the other most popular choice, burns fossil fuels and emits about 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually – that’s the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving the road for a year. In other words, the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poisoned it.

We can do so much better! Over the past three years, the Urban Death Project team has taken an inspired design idea and developed it into a system that uses the natural process of decomposition to turn our physical bodies into the soil. This soil can then be used to grow new life – imagine if you could become a pine tree, a honeysuckle bush, or a field of lavender after you’ve died.

How does the system work?

At the heart of each Urban Death Project facility is a three-story core containing our unique compost-based renewal system.

Bodies are laid into woodchips at the top of the core. Over a span of weeks, they turn into nutrient-rich soil. Each Urban Death Project building will be different, designed for the community in which it resides.

Although this core is being engineered to be replicated entirely, each building that houses a core can and should be unique, designed specifically for the neighbourhood in which it resides.

Bodies are placed into the core during the laying in ceremony.

Bodies of the deceased are placed inside this core by their friends and families during a ceremony. Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, bodies decompose fully, creating a rich soil that can be used to grow new life.

Beyond being a system for turning our bodies into the soil, the Urban Death Project is a way to create spaces in our cities where we can contemplate our place in the natural world, and say goodbye to those we love. Death is special and is as miraculous - in its own way - as birth. Thus, it deserves to be marked by ceremony and meaning.

The soil created from the bodies of our deceased may be used to grow a memorial garden or a tree.

The funding from this Kickstarter Campaign will be used to complete the second phase of design for this pioneering new system. The project to date has been funded by the Echoing Green Foundation, and by donations from people like you.

What is the science behind the Urban Death Project?

Our bodies are made up of nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium, and when coupled with high carbon material such as woodchips and sawdust, we turn into soil in a process called composting. What happens to a body in an Urban Death Project facility is a lot like what happens on the top six inches of the forest floor, as organic material breaks down to form precious topsoil.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither energy nor matter can be created nor destroyed. When we die, the decomposition process breaks down the molecules in our bodies into smaller molecules and atoms, which are then incorporated into new molecules. In other words, our physical bodies are literally transformed into new substances. The system of the Urban Death Project activates this process and accelerates it with the help of carbon materials, aeration, and hydration.

Has human composting been done before?

The scientific basis for the Urban Death Project is the research done in livestock mortality composting by Cornell University, Washington State University, and the Pennsylvania Natural Resources Conservation Service (among others). Researchers at these institutions have found that composting is a safe, sustainable, and effective way to re-purpose animal carcasses, and the process is now utilized by farmers all over the United States. There are no records of humans being composted in this way, though the practice of natural burial (without embalming, caskets or vaults) is growing in popularity in countries all over the world.

When she was in graduate school for architecture, founder Katrina Spade realized the enormous potential of the livestock composting process, and she set out to modify it for the urban setting and the human experience and so The Urban Death Project was born.
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