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From Death to Life

When Katrina Spade ’13MA started her master of architecture program, she had no idea she would be redesigning funerary practices in the United States. But, with the encouragement of her professors and inspiration from her own life, she found herself writing a culminating thesis on human composting as a form of natural urban burial.

In 2020, Spade opened Recompose, a first-of-its-kind, full-service funeral home based in Seattle, Washington, that specializes in the greenest burials available in the funeral market. As of this writing, the Seattle location has composted over 200 people so far. The process starts when the deceased is laid out in a vessel—called the “laying in.” Staff, family, and friends place wood chips, straw, and alfalfa around the body. Over the next 30 days, the body breaks down into nutrient-dense soil, which is removed and then cured for another two to six weeks. After that, the soil can be taken by loved ones to be used in gardens and yards or donated to help with conservation lands—providing a source of new life.

UMass Magazine caught up with Spade to get a better feel for the company and her unconventional mission.

When did you first get the idea to redesign death?

I had just turned 30 and was feeling quite mortal. I also had two young kids growing up every day in front of my eyes, and I realized that I was aging that fast too. I took those mortal feelings and looked at the funeral industry. I knew I didn’t want to be cremated or buried in a conventional way. I loved the idea of green burial, where the body is buried directly in the ground with a shroud, but I knew that wasn’t an urban solution long term.

Where did the inspiration come from?

A friend of mine knew I was thinking about this and asked me if I had heard about what farmers do to compost whole cows, and I hadn’t heard of it but found it fascinating. Like, if you can do that with a cow, you can probably do that with a human.

All along, I’ve been amazed at how many people are excited about this. I think it’s for a few reasons. One, unless you have a faith tradition or a cultural tradition around death care, you tend to choose the default option, like cremation … there’s a desire for something new. The second is climate change. We are all feeling the crisis and grief of it. And I, for one, started thinking about my final gesture on earth. I want it to be sustainable.

How did your experience at UMass help you?

Your job in grad school is to go down a rabbit hole—to research and design and be thoughtful. So, I approached my professors and told them, “Hey, I think I should design a process and a space for composting humans.” And they all said it sounds like a great idea. We laughed a lot, but I think it speaks to the quality of teaching at UMass that I was encouraged to take on this idea and take it seriously. They helped solidify that it wasn’t so much about the composting part as it was about the need to redesign the experience friends and family have throughout this process.

Do you have a favorite story you can share?

One of my favorite stories actually comes from the use of the soil. The sister of one of our clients came to get all of it. It’s a cubic yard, so it’s a good amount of soil. She took it back to the neighborhood where the deceased had lived, and all of his neighbors took a portion of it to place in their gardens.

Spade is working with various state legislatures to legalize human composting. Currently, five states allow for this type of burial, and several others, including Massachusetts, are considering bills.

Hear more from Spade and see Recompose for yourself in this virtual visit: