The death industry is about to experience a boom in business.
In three years, the world’s population aged over 65 will outnumber children under 5 for the first time in history. By 2050, they will almost double to about 1.6 billion people. Considering our inevitable fates (and the fact that the average life expectancy of Americans falls somewhere between 84 and 86), that means a lot more customers for death-care companies. But there’s one significant detail getting in the way of their riches: real estate.
About half the world’s population resides in urban areas, and it’s projected that about 66% will by 2050. As our cities become more dense, land becomes increasingly more precious. And why waste it on cemeteries and funeral homes for the dead instead of, well, just about anything else for the living?
Finding space for burying the dead isn’t a new problem. Ancient Roman and medieval cities solved this issue by building catacombs underground. Today, Israel and Brazil are going up instead, building vertical cemeteries that are essentially high-rise buildings. The same is seen throughout Asia, where it’s fairly common to have your cremated remains stacked in stories-high columbariums. But American society has been loathe to diverge from traditional burials.
Beyond lack of land, the problem for the death-care industry is a simple one: It’s a bad business model. You pay a one-time fee for a plot, and the cemetery owner promises to maintain it for the rest of time. They can’t re-sell it or move you to make way for a new paying customer. And as space diminishes, prices skyrocket for the consumer. For example, burial plots in New York City can go for tens of thousands of dollars: In 2008, former mayor Ed Koch paid $20,000 so he could eventually be buried in Trinity Churchyard. As he told the Associated Press at the time, “The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”
And when all the plots are filled? Business over, with no chance of making more money. (Or, if you’re Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, you start re-purposing the land and charging hipsters for yoga classes and cider tastings.)
Then there’s the ecological cost. In America, we usually bury bodies that have been embalmed with formaldehyde-based fluids. This means we’re injecting about eight Olympic-size pools of toxic chemicals into the ground each year, and enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Then there’s the carbon footprint involved with the manufacturing and transportation of gravestones, grave liners, and caskets.
The obvious alternative to being buried is cremation, which is skyrocketing in popularity in the US. In 1960, less than 4% of Americans were cremated. In 2015, cremation rates reached 49%, surpassing those of burial for the first time. A large part of the reason behind this increase isn’t space, but price. Due to the combined costs of plot, casket, headstone, and more, the average burial in the US costs about between $7,000 and $10,000, whereas cremation through a funeral home is roughly between $2,000 and $4,000, and a cremation through a crematory between $1,500 and $3,000.
But when it comes to the environment, cremation isn’t blameless, either. Cremation requires burning fossil fuels to achieve temperatures high enough for incineration. Not only does that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but mercury as well. In fact, cremation is responsible for 16% of the UK’s mercury pollution.
For Katrina Spade, a young Seattle-based architect, the rise of cremation signifies that the US—and the rest of the world—is thirsty for better alternatives. “People are not enamored by the process of cremation,” she says. “Most people that I talk to find it to be an acceptable default, but don’t necessarily think, ‘Oh I love fire, I definitely want to be incinerated after I die.’”
So Spade has come up with her own meaningful solution: Recomposition Centers, where instead of taking up space or adding to the harmful chemicals in the atmosphere, human bodies can be converted into soil.
Here’s how it works. Each center is made up of multiple vertical bays. After carrying your loved one up a ramp to the top of a bay, you lay them into a pile of wood chips. As the body decomposes into the soil, it descends so that the soil can eventually be harvested from the ground floor. Each week about 4 to 6 more feet of wood chips are added to the top of each bay for the next body, and the cycle begins again. She calls this process “recomposition.” As Spade explains in an interview for Metropolis, “Each body slowly moves downward as it’s turned into soil. It’s like you’re settling into your new existence…no longer human, now you’re soil.”
Thanks to these centers’ verticality and small carbon footprint, they effectively circumvent the issue of land scarcity. The first prototypes will be built this year at the University of Washington, whose soil department will aid Spade in researching the science of recomposition. At the same time, Spade and her non-profit, The Urban Death Project, are lobbying to add recomposition to the list of legal burial options, which is currently determined on a state-by-state basis.
Natural or eco-friendly burials, in which our bodies are put in the ground without any toxic chemicals or non-biodegradable substances, similarly allow for this kind of recomposition. But Spade’s concept adds a community-based element to this practice: Each center would also be surrounded by a park for visitors to spend time in, and the soil created by human bodies would go directly toward cultivating that greenery. These centers would act as centralized structures that families can easily return to in order to remember their loved ones.
Spade is highly conscious of how these centers’ prominent placements within cities could change our perceptions of death overall, potentially overturning Western culture’s insistence on death-denying. “With a proper place to visit and to contemplate death, there could be a real awakening of our mortality and of our relationship to death” she says. “Not just the scary part, which is ‘You’re going to die some day,’ but also the beautiful part, which is ‘You can rejoin natural cycles.’ And that’s something we all share.”