A concept that is to die for?
If this was our April issue I know readers would not believe me. Luckily it’s not – so I can tell you all about a bizarre new concept: turning human bodies into compost!
It was with a certain morbid sense of fascination that I read all about this scheme. I use the word “scheme” intentionally … while the concept itself is quite clever (I think), the founder is calling for donations (which always makes me a tiny bit nervous).
But. Let me tell you about it anyway – because I am somewhat intrigued. The scheme’s proper name is the Urban Death Project and it is the brainchild of one Katrina Spade (really, yes, spade as in digging a grave … I swear). She is one clever person, having earned her Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College. During her studies, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build and monitor a compost heating system, a project which ultimately led to Urban Death Project.
This is how the Urban Death Project wants to conduct its business. First of all, someone dies, hopefully of natural causes. His or her body can be stored in a refrigerated space for up to ten days before the so-called “ceremony” takes place. No embalming can take place during this time – because decomposition is an important part of the process.
Thereafter, the body is shrouded in linen and it is transferred to what Spade calls the “core”, which is basically a building for human composting. It contains bodies and high-carbon materials. Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, turning into compost. That compost can be used within the neighbourhood, or, if you really want to, you can get a container of compost produced exclusively by Aunty Jane.
Does this sound macabre? Spade says it’s not. You can still have a burial ritual (a la the normal cemetery gig). In the case of the Urban Death Project model, this can include optional washing and wrapping of the body itself with the assistance of death midwives, a procession carrying the body up four storeys to the top of the core, and covering of the body itself with woodchips and sawdust.
“Depending on the wishes of friends and family, the ritual may also include music during the procession, prayers or words as the body is covered, and a gathering (like a memorial service or funeral) to mark the passing of the deceased. The Urban Death Project is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature,” her website notes.
I’m not so sure about connecting with cycles. However, there is a fairly strong environmental argument in favour of us becoming compost once we’re dead. The good news is that this project promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – because composting does not produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is produced, however, by anaerobic processes, such as the putrefaction of an embalmed corpse in a sealed concrete vault six feet under, according to the Urban Death Project.
“Fewer greenhouse gases will be produced by the manufacture of embalming fluids, vaults and coffins, as more and more people choose to have their bodies composted. Fewer trees will be cut down to make caskets. Less arable land will be used for cemeteries, allowing crops to be grown closer to urban centres, reducing the need for fossil-fuel-powered transport of food,” it points out.
But this concept is not without its critics. There are obviously people who reject the idea for religious reasons, and I respect their points of view. Others say that it’s a problem to compost human bodies because there are some dangerous things in “dem bones”. I heard one person saying that the HIV/Aids virus would survive the composting process while others have said that the mercury in fillings is a huge problem.
I was reading comments on a website called Natural News recently and it proclaimed that the Urban Death Project was “a bona fide death project that will cause widespread sickness and death if carried out as currently envisioned”. The site claims that the project is dead in the ground (sorry could not resist it) because “modern-day humans are simply too toxic to turn into plant food”.
Rising in hysteria, the site warned that citizens could be required to turn themselves over to the “recyclers” upon reaching the age of 70. “Or 65, or whenever the government decides it can no longer afford to keep sending out social security cheques. And that’s how the Urban Death Project, despite being paved with good intentions, could very easily become the Urban MASS Death Project that’s used by the government to greenwash mass murder!” it proclaimed.
I almost died laughing when I read that …