What do you do when you baulk at the idea of cremation or standard burial? Rose Eveleth talks to a woman planning an unusual alternative.

When Grace Seidel dies, she’s not going to be buried in a cemetery. She won’t be cremated either. In fact, none of the usual options have ever really felt right to her, she says.

“When you think about cremation, even when you’re dead it feels so violent to be burned in this oven. With burial you’re filled with chemicals and put in several boxes in the ground and I always knew I didn’t want to do that.”

But recently, Seidel found what she was looking for – a process that is gentle, natural and environmentally friendly. Seidel’s body will be composted when she dies.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Seidel, a 55-year-old writer and artist living in Seattle, says she’s long been interested in death, and when her mother moved into elderly care it became hard to escape the question of what happens to a person’s body after they pass away. “You’re constantly being faced with the dying,” she says, “so it’s hard not to think about it. I’ve thought about it a lot in the last couple of years.”

Seidel first learned about the idea in a book called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by the mortician Caitlin Doughty. In the book, Doughty talks about the Urban Death Project, a space for composting bodies. “I immediately said to myself ‘Yes! That’s for me! That would be the way to go.’” So she contacted Katrina Spade, the designer behind the project.

Back to the soil

Like Seidel, Spade was prompted to think about death because of her family. “I had one of those epiphanies that I think most people have: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die some day.’ I had some young kids, and something about having kids makes you feel really mortal, and they grow so fast and you think oh my God, time is flying by.” So Spade started thinking about what she would want done with her own body when she died, and realised she wasn’t sure. She wasn’t religious, had no ties to a specific cultural ritual, and the more she looked into the funeral industry the less she liked any of the options.

Ultimately, she came up with the Urban Death Project, a composting system that turns bodies into rich soil that can go back to loved ones and the community. The Urban Death Project isn’t yet a reality; it’s still in the planning stages. But Spade says she’s already had people, like Seidel, express interest and ask to sign up, and she hopes to get the project up and running in the coming years.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Spade says she doesn’t want to stop anybody from being buried or cremated, if that’s what they want to do. But she says that composting provides a method that is both environmentally friendly, and meaningful in a way that other methods might not be for some people. “Honestly I think what the system is providing is really simple but very deep meaning – when you die you can grow new life. It’s as simple as that.”

For Seidel, that return to the earth is the key. “I’m a gardener, I love gardening, I love being outside and I love my dirt. It seemed to me to be so gentle, just a gentle way of calmly and gently and non-violently returning back to the earth.” Seidel says that she almost thinks of it as a strange kind of health resort. “I don’t lay in my dirt in my backyard, I’m not that much of a weirdo, but sometimes I’ve thought about the concept of a spa with really clean dirt,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be pleasant to be laying in some warm sterile soil and resting in it? That’s kind of how I see composting – sort of like a spa experience for the dead.”

Composting layers

Functionally, the Urban Death Project is less like a spa and more like a farm. Composting large bodies has been done before – those bodies just haven’t been human. There’s a lot of research and experience among cattle ranchers and farmers for composting the bodies of their large farm animals, and it’s work that Spade was able to look at when designing her system. People might baulk at the idea of using mechanisms designed for cattle carcasses on humans, but it’s a system that is well understood and tested. And Spade’s design for the Urban Death Project is certainly a bit more refined than your average livestock composting heap.

The Urban Death Project system would be housed in a three-storey building, with the composting segment divided into three main regions. The top layer consists of a bed of sawdust and wood chips. It’s where the body is laid during the ceremony, and where friends and family can gather. Because the body is meant to compost, it isn’t treated with any of the embalming fluids or chemicals that a body intended for burial might be.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Beneath the top layer is a set of composting bays, and each body eventually settles down into one as it slowly degrades. This decomposition region is the largest part of the setup. The process is collective and continual: as older bodies descend into the core, new bodies are added on top. At the bottom is a layer for screening and sorting, sifting out whatever might have descended all the way to the bottom, and harvesting the rich compost that the bodies have generated. It would take a few months for each body to find its way there, into the finished compost, and, as the Urban Death Project website says, “This compost is sacred, both its past and its potential.” Family members and friends are encouraged to take some of this sacred compost with them, to use in their own gardens. What is left will be used in city parks. “In this way, the dead are folded back into the fabric of the city,” the website says.

Celebrating lives

The idea of your body being composted alongside others might not sit well with some. But Seidel doesn’t mind the idea of being without a single, specific tombstone or urn. After all, she says, what ultimately is the point? “So somebody can say, ‘There’s Grace! She’s still living, I mean she’s dead, but there she is!’” she says. “We commingle with other human beings and animals our whole lives, we share everything. I hope people remember me by photos, by things I’ve said, by books I’ve written, I hope that’s how people will remember me, not by a pile of ashes or a pile of dirt, but by good memories – because that’s the only way we can live forever.”

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The system is designed to be able to take a large number of bodies, but Spade is planning on limiting it to two a day – giving enough time for a ceremony in the morning and one in the evening. “Putting more than that seems to be pushing it and there’s no reason to do that.”

Because, really, the Urban Death Project isn’t just a system for the disposal of bodies. Spade wanted to design a place where people could have funerals, and celebrate the lives of those they have lost. “People like to create and tweak their own rituals,” she says, “so I love the idea that we could create a framework for ritual that isn’t set in stone, but gives someone a space for ritual.”

And when it comes to convincing people that composting is a legitimate option, both Spade and Seidel say that it hasn’t been as hard as you might think. Seidel doesn’t have any children to convince of her decision to have her body composted, but she says that everyone she’s talked to about it has ultimately accepted the idea. Even her best friend – who was initially surprised by Seidel’s plan – has accepted her decisions. When the day of Seidel’s funeral arrives, her loved ones will be part of a very natural – and personal – send off.

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When you die you can grow new life. It’s as simple as that.

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