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Kelly's interest in finding alternative ways to bury people was piqued when her own father died in 2000. In the Irish-Catholic style, he was embalmed, laid out in a modern casket, and buried in a small church cemetery. "He had the conventional way out," she says, but the experience got her wondering if there was another way. She Googled "no embalming" and discovered Ramsey Creek in Westminster, South Carolina—the only green burial ground in the US at that time. "I thought, wow, this is really interesting, but that's all there was. I wanted to find other people who were interested in changing our death practices and who wanted to sort of do death differently." As she pursued the topic academically, making it part of the focus of her PhD, Kelly discovered that a community of likeminded people was gaining ground. She found others who wanted to care for the dead with minimal impact to the earth, in a way that did not deny the realities of subsidence. "It's a way of tying the fact of human death to caring for the land, and a way of recognizing that we do indeed belong to the earth—that we do indeed belong to nature."
Rebirth in the City
Green burial grounds in rural settings are growing: Kelly estimates that more than 125 earth-friendly cemeteries of varying styles have opened in the US in the last 15 years. Yet with more than 50 percent of the world's population now living in urban centers, we need solutions for cities, too. That's where Katrina Spade comes in. The founder and designer of the Urban Death Project, based in Seattle, Spade has a plan for a vertical burial system based on the idea of "recomposing" the human body into life-giving soil. The idea came to her around 2010, when having two young children got her thinking about her own mortality, and about how today's funeral practices don't always support us in a holistic way. "I was just not interested in having the last thing I do be toxic to the Earth that supported me my whole life long," says Spade. "I started designing a model for a place that would be right in our city, where the staff would be trained more like death or middle-life celebrants, instead of like funeral directors currently are. We'd give families more participation, not less, over the death care experience."
The idea quickly grew from an alternative funeral home to a full-fledged green burial facility. "A friend of mine called me one day and asked if I'd heard about these farmers and researchers who do livestock composting. It was one of those moments where it just clicked, and I thought, 'What if, in addition to building beautiful spaces where the staff helps families participate, we also designed a main system that would turn bodies into soil after death?'" Spade designed what she calls a recomposition core—a vertical structure at the center of a city building that's two to three stories high and filled with wood chips, which are a main component in livestock composting and can be sustainably sourced from city parks departments. It also lends itself well to a framework for a ritual that has meaning for mourners. "You'd invite friends and family to bring the body to the top of the core, which becomes a kind of journey or procession where you're saying good-bye to the person you've lost. Then friends and family lay the body into the top of the core, and it's a way for the living to participate in the exciting transformation that's about to happen." In the weeks or months that follow, family and friends can return to the site to retrieve compost, which they can either scatter like cremains, or use to plant a tree or a garden.
While still in the prototype stage, the Urban Death Project is taking shape thanks to an Echoing Green Fellowship that Spade received in 2014, a Kickstarter campaign that raised $91,000, and various donations from individuals and foundations. With a growing staff of advisors and researchers, Spade is hoping to kick off a pilot program at Washington State University—and Seattle seems well cast for a flagship facility. "The people here are environmentally minded and progressive," she says. "But even more than that, I think there's an appreciation for things that are a little bit dark, or a little bit different." Long-term, she hopes to take the project to many cities. Public response has been largely positive, bolstered by shifting views about death and a new willingness to face one of our most taboo subjects. "If I had tried to do this project 10 years ago, I'm pretty sure it would have fallen flat on its face," says Spade. "But there's such a wonderful community of people and organizations working toward the same goal, which is more participation, more transparency for consumers, more conversations around death that are honest and open."