cremation, burial or compost?

These startups want to kill the coffin

Elena Scotti

A human body can decompose in four to six weeks, bones, teeth and all.

With enough moisture and nutrients to aid the process, we can go from one thing, a human, to an entirely different material—an entirely different scientific thing—in less time than most people allot between haircuts.

But that’s not how it usually goes. Instead we do everything we can to make sure our dead bodies cling to their inert existence. We pump bodies full of formaldehyde and other chemicals to stave off natural processes, place them in a metal or hardwood casket, and then put that in a concrete grave-liner that lasts for as long as humanly possible. If say, we’re not attached to our bodies, we cremate them, creating ash, noxious odors, and carbon dioxide emissions. It’s as if we want our goodbyes to the world to be as destructive as possible. A big fuck-off on our way out the spiritual door.

In recent years, though, we’ve seen a handful of startups that want to innovate around death. I know, weird mission statement. But that’s what they want to do. They imagine a greener, more organic, planet-friendlier farewell to one’s time on Earth. These startups want to kill the coffin.

One of these coffin-killers is Katrina Spade, the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project.

An architect by training, Spade is proposing we dispose of human bodies through composting. They’d be covered in wood chips and left to decompose into soil, just like many people do with orange skins, banana peels, carrot shavings or egg shells. Her idea has hit a major cultural nerve as people become increasing aware of the unnaturalness and wastefulness of the $20 billion funeral industry in America. In the same vein, more people are seeking out funeral options that offer a lighter touch and a more meaningful experience, which has led to the birth of a number of innovative alternatives.

The Manhattan skyline with a sprawling cemetery in the Nguyen

The Manhattan skyline with a sprawling cemetery in the foreground.

Rather than buying a $1,349.99, 200-pound, 18-gauge steel coffin from Costco for your departed loved one, you could put them in an organic, egg-shaped pod and plant them beneath a tree. Instead of burning the recently deceased in an 1,800-degree oven for hours, releasing soot, trace amounts of pollutants like mercury, and some 540 pounds of carbon dioxide per person into the air, you could put their body into a mushroom-lined biodegradable burial suit or flash-freeze them with nitrogen. To mark their death, you can commission a memorial mold that will go underwater and help support coral reefs, rather than getting a gravestone.

The startup industry is a graveyard itself, with some 9 out of 10 efforts failing, and Spade and her cohort are relying on people to see the value of these new options for their business models to thrive. But it’s not crazy to think we might make a fundamental change in how we go about taking care of our dead. This type of titanic shift has happened before in the death industry, first with the rapid expansion of funeral homes in the late 19th century after the Civil War (who took over burial ceremonies from churches) and then with the transition from traditional burial to cremation. In 1960, just 3% of the population were cremated. A half century later, around half of those who die will end up being burned into ash.

The people behind these eco-death start-ups aren’t just protect-the-planet crusaders. They want to make death less ritualistic and frightening. It’s a natural process, and if the mechanics of it are more natural and less professionalized, it might help people take more meaning from it.

The biggest challenge these innovators face now is convincing people to rethink death. With that mission in mind, Spade, who lives in Seattle, flew to New York last month to give an 8:30 a.m. talk to 20 Manhattanites about the virtues of composting humans. It was part of her fellowship with Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that funds creative entrepreneurs.

Katrina Spade, founder of the Urban Death Project.Courtesy of Katrina Spade

Katrina Spade, founder of the Urban Death Project.

The unusualness of starting the day with coffee, muffins, and an hour discussion about composting dead bodies was not lost on Spade, and she made sure to pepper the talk with puns (“If meaning is inherent in practices, they should remain”) and humorous asides.

Spade described how her composting would work: Bodies would be shrouded in biodegradable material, by loved ones if they choose. Mourners would then carry the body up three flights of stairs and lay it to rest in a bed of wood chips, boosted with extra nitrogen to catalyze decomposition. Then, they’d be placed atop a giant composting apparatus that releases them as a cubic-yard of soil for gardening less than two months later. Rather than cast-off the dead to the fringes of communities where land is cheap and interaction infrequent, these composting buildings will be designed as urban sanctuaries, offering solace and reflection against the chaotic backdrop of modern society.

I’m still figuring out how to say this, but I know there’s really great, deep value in being close to the people we’ve lost.

“We don’t have a ton of sacred spaces that aren’t connected with religion, and I think we could use more,” Spade said. “I’m a non-religious person, yet I believe in something spiritual, something that has to do with nature. I’m still figuring out how to say this, but I know there’s really great, deep value in being close to the people we’ve lost.”

Katrina Spade for the Urban Death Project (4)Courtesy of Katrina Spade

Spade received the Echoing Green fellowship about 18 months ago, which she said turned her composting idea into a movement overnight. Last year she set up a Kickstarter campaign and raised $90,000 from around 1,200 donations. In the next two to five years she hopes to set up the first fully operational Urban Death Project facility in Seattle and create a model, or toolkit, that can be adapted to other cities across the world.

In the meantime, she said she gets emails every few hours from people imminently facing death or just interested in their mortality who have decided that composting their bodies is the right thing for them. For those who find meaning in traditional burial or cremation, Spade has no issue with that. She isn’t trying to convert people to her method, just to make sure that everyone has the option of proactively seeking as much meaning out of death as they do out of life.

This spring she is organizing a ten-day intensive design session to produce a model of the core technology and she is also working with several universities to hash out legal and logistical issues. This winter there’s a fifth test body decomposing at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station as part of their effort to better understand the physical process of human composting. Burial regulations are a state-by-state endeavor, and the legal side of the equation will take some enterprising work. Spade said that the easiest state to set up a human composting facility—the state where they could do it right now if they wanted—was Colorado.

But she has her heart set on Washington state.

“Why am I doing this work?” She ended her talk with a self-directed question and prepared answer. “Because death is momentous, miraculous, and mysterious. And because the cycles of nature help us grieve and heal and our bodies are full of life-giving potential.”

For Michael Ma, co-founder and president of Coeio, a Manhattan-based startup offering “Infinity Burial” products such as a mushroom-spore-lined burial suit for humans and a similar burial pod for pets, many of the holistic elements of his business overlap with the Urban Death Project, especially the notion of taking agency over one’s death.

When you make decisions under duress you often don’t get what you or your family want.

Ma, who started Coeio with Jae Rhim Lee after the two met at Stanford Design School, said they hope their mushroom suit will help prompt more family conversations about death while everyone is still able to participate.

“People don’t like thinking about death, but when you make decisions under duress you often don’t get what you or your family want,” he said. This can involve spending more than desired or ending up with a less than ideal burial location. With more than half of all Americans over the age of 50 having not planned a funeral for themselves or anyone else, this is a common scenario. When it happened to Ma, it incentivized him to get into the business of death.

“I was the point person at my grandparents’ funeral two years ago,” he said, noting that they died around the same time. “Going through that process made me realize you don’t get to make a lot of the decisions you ought to make.”

Should one choose the Infinity Burial Suit, they will be put to rest wearing a bodysuit infused with mushroom spores to aid the decomposition process and help naturally filter toxins out of the body. Ma said the garment will feel like clothing and function that way, but he wasn’t able to offer more detail as patents are pending. Coeio hopes to have the pet suits available for sale later this spring and the human suits ideally by the end of the summer.

coeio-bed-demo800Courtesy of Coeio

Ma said starting with pet suits will allow them to refine the process, both at a physical and emotional level. There are almost as many pet funerals in the United States as human funerals every year, about 1.9 million compared to 2.3 million according to Ma. In many ways the emotional journey one experiences from the loss of a pet is similar to the loss of a friend or family member. The pet suits will range in size from goldfish to golden retriever, and will cost between $20 and $200.

Ma thinks once momentum really starts to build for greener burial options, the funeral industry will have to adapt.

“Look no further than cars or organic foods,” he said. “Once it passes triple-digit growth they will have to meet customers where they are.”

The Capsula Mundi burial project by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel combines the idea of human composting with that of a burial suit. Citelli and Bretzel are creating “seeds” or pods that will hold the body in fetal position, where it will be buried underneath a newly planted tree.

They told me over email that they landed on this idea after asking themselves why design cannot help humanity better approach the issue of death.

“We decided to dedicate our work to overcoming a major taboo in our society: the coffin,” they wrote in an email.

They noted how in some countries, such as England, the funeral industry has already changed as green cemeteries have become increasingly popular, thus offering “a wide variety of natural burials.”

“Death is not only a physical event, it is a physiological experience and we are convinced that people feel the need to reconnect themselves with death,” they wrote. “There is no obstruction, deprivation or annihilation from death. We return to the earth and the earth will always generate new forms of life.”

eventiCourtesy of Capsula Mundi

Until these super-future death options come to market, there’s still the option of a simple green burial.

Amy Cunningham recently left her job at a large funeral home in New York to start Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, which specializes in green burials and memorial services. Her approach is less dependent on a new frame of mind than an old one.

I long for a return to the simple burial of 150 years ago.

“I long for a return to the simple burial of 150 years ago, but the rising trend of cremation is really hard to stop,” she told me, adding that small funeral practices have a hard time staying in business since cremation delivers a smaller profit margin than burial.

But she also supports the new wave efforts.

“New thinking will change the industry from within,” she said. “And new demands for loosened regulations will change the industry from the outside as well.”

The National Home Funeral Alliance has created a guide to the legal requirements of holding a home funeral in every state, including preservation time requirements, need for a funeral director, mandatory waiting period for cremation, and any other regulations.

In New York, a funeral director must be hired to deal with certain tasks such as filling out the death certificate. He or she must also be present to supervise the funeral service or cremation. Furthermore, many counties and municipalities have local ordinances that usually require a minimum amount of acreage and some form of registration with the local government showing the exact location of the burial spot.

Cunningham said when people contact her for a green burial what they usually want is a service that doesn’t involve chemical embalming; they want instead a biodegradable shroud or wooden vessel with no nails or metal handles, and a cemetery that will bury without a concrete or fiberglass burial vault.

In many ways Cunningham’s vision for the future of the industry aligns with Spade’s. She said “funeral homes may become celebration of life centers with lectures on loss and grieving and recovery taking place at night.”

Her ideas can also seem as far-flung as human composting.

“I think we’ll see more gratitude services before death occurs for people with lingering illnesses,” she said. “Friends will deliver eulogies to them before they die.”

But her emphasis on the human element of death is just as strong as in all the other startups.

“I’ve seen families leaving an eco-friendly burial almost skip out of the cemetery,” she said. “They’re still sad a death has occurred, but elated with what they just did as a loving effort to do the best and the right thing.”

That’s a feeling we could all live with a little more of.

This is part of our week-long series on the future of death.