LET'S TALK ABOUT DEATH
Death was once a fact of life. It was natural. Inevitable.
We buried our loved ones ourselves, celebrated their lives, and honored their bodies in our homes. But that’s no longer the case: now our families die in hospitals, and we pay strangers to dispose of their remains.
In America, it was the Civil War that prompted this transition.
Embalming fluid allowed field doctors to send dead soldiers home, thus postponing the burial deadline. With this, came the rise of the funeral industry — now valued at 20.7 billion per year.
The advancement of the healthcare field further distanced families from participating in the dying process. Death was considered failure, which the medical community fought with newer technologies. In the late 1880s, fewer than 20% of Americans died in hospitals; by the 1970s, the hospital room was where nearly everyone went to die.
we've outsourced the care of our dead
and are paying the price
In separating ourselves from death, we no longer accept it. Instead, we fear it. We deny and defy its inevitability through tonics and diets, injections and nip tucks. But ignoring death has consequences, and it’s important to understand the price that ignorance pays.
source: Urban Death Project
introduce an alternative form of burial
to get the living to talk about death
To remove the stigma of death, we need to normalize the subject. We do that by starting a conversation. But in order to break the ice, we need to give them something to talk about — a movement to disrupt the funeral industry with a new form of burial: composting.
Founded by Katrina Spade, The Urban Death Project utilizes the process of composting to turn the deceased into soil, thus creating a meaningful, equitable, and ecological alternative to conventional burial practices.
Our team was 100% on board with the idea of composting, but we weren't sure if we could get others to sign up.
To get people to say yes, we wanted to figure out all the possible no's.
#1: BLIND TRADITION
Grief is a powerful motivator in settling for what is perceived as tried and true — which also happens to be prohibitively expensive, not to mention toxic for the environment. When a loved one dies unexpectedly — or without a funeral plan in place, families tend to delegate burial decisions to others — experts in the subject like funeral directors, or friends who have been through it before — doing very little research on their own.
In order to break this cycle, we need to normalize death, so that they can express their funerary preferences and learn about alternatives.
#2: COMPOST IS FOR VEGETABLES
It's a term that's associated with food waste, and is perceived to lack the dignity of conventional options. "Natural decomposition" or "accelerated natural decomposition" were alternatives thrown around in our interviews; but these are clinical terms that lack warmth and humanity.
In order for this movement to be taken seriously, a new term must be coined to explain the Urban Death Project process from decomposition to planting.
#3: LACK OF AWARENESS
Alternatives — like compressing ashes into a diamond, or a coral reef, or getting blasted into space — are deemed novelties, rather than legitimate burial options. Fun to think about, but never to put into practice. When we explained composting to our families, some were incredulous at first. But after hearing about the process, and the effects of the death care industry on the environment, all were ready to sign themselves up.
#4: IMPLICATIONS OF MASS GRAVES
This one is tricky. At the center of Katrina Spade's facility, is a three-story core. The deceased are wrapped in a shroud and carried to the top of this core by their mourners, where last goodbyes are said, and bodies are placed for renewal. A potential problem is in the communal decomposition process. Although there is ten feet of space between bodies, people tend to be wary of anything to do with burial en masse. While it was once common practice in early human history, modern day associations are that of genocide and plague. In order to not turn people off to the idea of compositing, we need to emphasize community as a positive — a chance to better the world, and a reflection on your place in a greater ecosystem. Think: circular economy. But for bodies.
#5: NO ONE WANTS TO CONSIDER
THEIR OWN MORTALITY
Death is certain. And yet, many seem to think ignoring that truth will delay its effect. But that only leaves both ourselves and our loved ones ill-prepared for the inevitable.
6-out-of-10 people don't want to burden their family with end-of-life decisions; but almost just as many (56%) say they have not communicated their funerary preferences [source: Time]
To get people to plan for death, we need to give them permission to talk about it. Again, this is about creating conversation to erase stigma.