Architecture Alumna Katrina Spade Shepherds Vision of ‘Human Composting’ Into Law in Washington State

Vision of a future recompose facility, Image by MOLT Studios.
Vision of a future recompose facility, Image by MOLT Studios.
Katrina Spade
Katrina Spade

Alumna Katrina Spade saw the vision of her master’s thesis become reality on May 21, as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law making his state the first in the country to legalize the composting of human remains. The law goes into effect on May 1, 2020.

Spade first drafted her plans for a ‘human composting’ facility in 2012 while earning her master’s degree in architecture and design, which she completed in 2013. She aimed to create an urban-focused system for disposing of the dead in a manner that was more sustainable and environmentally conscious than traditional methods such as burial or cremation.

Spade initially designed an elegant facility to house the composting processes, which involves bodies being placed in a receptacle containing organic matter such as straw and wood chips to accelerate the aerobic process of decomposition into soil. In about four weeks the process is complete, creating about one cubic yard of soil.

In 2014 she launched the non-profit Urban Renewal Project to help further bring the idea to reality. In 2017, when her project started to look like it could become an actuality, she closed the non-profit to launch her company, Recompose, a public benefit corporation which will develop the facilities necessary for and provide the services of “natural organic reduction.”

Speaking to the New York Times in 2015, Spade said, “Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds. Our bodies have nutrients. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?” Following the signing ceremony in the governor’s office, the Times reported that she “said that for about $5,000, her company will be able to turn bodies into compost and return the soil to loved ones to be spread on a garden or to help grow a tree, just as people can spread cremated ashes. The price is less than an elaborate burial service in many places, but more than the most basic cremation.”

Max Page, professor of architecture and the master’s of design program director, served as Spade’s advisor.

“Katrina Spade is an incredible graduate of our program,” Page says, “and I was really honored to work with her because she was a visionary in her approach to this universal topic: Everyone dies, what do we do with our dead? And she decided not to take on a very small project, but to really take on this fundamental project.

“I knew how committed and passionate she was about this and how impressive a design student she was,” he continues. “It was just a thrilling time, because we really talked about the deepest issues of life and death while trying to craft a work of architecture that could serve as a prototype. And I just want to emphasize that: it’s an idea – how to dispose of the dead – but she also designed a project, a beautiful work of architecture to house this kind of process.”

Page said that Spade’s work is reflective of the UMass architecture department’s philosophy.

“What permeates the department is a commitment to the public research vision, that is, projects that contribute to a better public sphere and a better world. I think, and I know Katrina felt this, as well, that she felt that in the department, and it’s reflected in her desire to really commit a good portion of her life to a project that obviously has enormous public benefits. It’s about improving our environment and how we dispose of our dead, but it’s also a deeply thoughtful idea on an ethical and even spiritual level.”