Let’s talk about human composting | Katrina Spade | TEDxOrcasIsland

Translator: Joanna Pietrulewicz
Reviewer: Ivana Korom I was going to come out and begin
by telling you very seriously that you’re all going to die one day. (Laughter) I’m pretty sure that after that video and Katherine’s wonderful talk
before the video, you’re all completely aware of that fact. (Laughter) So I’m not going to say it, I am going to put it on the wall there. [We’re all gonna die.]
Because it’s still true. Even truer than it was five minutes ago. (Laughter) And even truer now… okay. My name is Katrina Spade,
and I grew up in a medical family where it was fairly normal to talk
about death and dying at the dinner table. But I didn’t go into medicine
like so many of my family members. Instead, I went to architecture school
to learn how to design. And while I was there,
I began to be curious about what would happen
to my physical body after I died. What would my nearest
and dearest do with me? So if the existence
and the fact of your own mortality doesn’t get you down, the state of our current
funerary practices will. Today, almost 50 percent of Americans
choose conventional burial. Conventional burial begins with embalming, where funeral staff drain bodily fluid and replace it with a mixture
designed to preserve the corpse and give it a lifelike glow. Then, as you know,
bodies are buried in a casket in a concrete-lined grave in a cemetery. All told, in US cemeteries, we bury enough metal
to build a Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build
1,800 single family homes, and enough formaldehyde-laden
embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools. In addition, cemeteries
all over the world are reaching capacity. Turns out, it doesn’t really
make good business sense to sell someone
a piece of land for eternity. (Laughter) Whose idea was that? In some places, you can’t buy a plot
no matter how much money you have. As a result, cremation rates
have risen fast. In 1950, if you suggested your grandmother
be incinerated after she died, you’d probably be kicked
from the family deathbed. But today, almost half
of Americans choose cremation, citing simpler, cheaper and more ecological as reasons. I used to think that cremation
was a sustainable form of disposition, but just think about it for a second. Cremation destroys the potential we have to give back to the earth
after we’ve died. It uses an energy-intensive process
to turn bodies into ash, polluting the air
and contributing to climate change. All told, cremations in the US emit a staggering 600 million
pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. The truly awful truth is that the very last thing
that most of us will do on this earth is poison it. [The last gesture
we make on Earth is toxic.] It’s like we’ve created, accepted
and death-denied our way into a status quo that puts as much distance
between ourselves and nature as is humanly possible. Our modern funerary practices
are designed to stave off the natural processes
that happen to a body after death. In other words, they’re meant
to prevent us from decomposing. But the truth is that nature is really,
really good at death. We’ve all seen it. When organic material dies in nature, microbes and bacteria
break it down into nutrient-rich soil, completing the life cycle. In nature, death creates life. Back in architecture school,
I was thinking about all this, and I set out on a plan
to redesign death care. Could I create a system that was beneficial to the earth and that used nature as a guide
rather than something to be feared? Something that was gentle to the planet? That planet, after all,
supports our living bodies our whole lives. And while I was mulling this all over over the drawing board, the phone rang. It was my friend Kate. She was like, “Hey,
have you heard about the farmers who are composting whole cows?” And I was like, “Mmmm.” (Laughter) Turns out that farmers
in agricultural institutions have been practicing something
called livestock mortality composting for decades. Mortality composting is where
you take an animal high in nitrogen and cover it with co-composting materials
that are high in carbon. It’s an aerobic process,
so it requires oxygen, and it requires
plenty of moisture as well. In the most basic setup, a cow
is covered with a few feet of wood chips, which are high in carbon, and left outside for nature,
for breezes to provide oxygen and rain to provide moisture. In about nine months, all that remains
is a nutrient-rich compost. The flesh has been decomposed entirely, as have the bones. I know. (Laughter) So I would definitely
call myself a decomposition nerd, but I am far, far from a scientist, and one way you can tell this is true is that I have often called
the process of composting “magic.” (Laughter) So basically, all we humans need to do is create the right environment
for nature to do its job. It’s like the opposite
of antibacterial soap. Instead of fighting them, we welcome microbes and bacteria
in with open arms. These tiny, amazing creatures break down molecules
into smaller molecules and atoms, which are then incorporated
into new molecules. In other words, that cow is transformed. It’s no longer a cow. It’s been cycled back into nature. See? Magic. (Laughter) You can probably imagine
the light bulb that went off in my head after I received that phone call. I began designing a system based on the principles
of livestock mortality composting that would take human beings
and transform them into soil. Fast-forward five years and the project has grown in ways
I truly never could have imagined. We’ve created a scalable,
replicable non-profit urban model based on the science
of livestock mortality composting that turns human beings into soil. We’ve partnered and collaborated
with experts in soil science, decomposition, alternative death care, law and architecture. We’ve raised funds
from foundations and individuals in order to design
a prototype of this system, and we’ve heard from tens of thousands
of people all over the world who want this option to be available. OK. In the next few years, it’s our goal to build the first
full-scale human composting facility right in the city of Seattle. (Applause) Imagine it, part public park, part funeral home, part memorial to the people we love, a place where we can reconnect
with the cycles of nature and treat bodies
with gentleness and respect. The infrastructure is simple. Inside a vertical core, bodies and wood chips undergo
accelerated natural decomposition, or composting, and are transformed into soil. When someone dies, their body
is taken to a human composting facility. After wrapping the deceased
in a simple shroud, friends and family carry the body
to the top of the core, which contains the natural
decomposition system. During a laying in ceremony, they gently place the body into the core and cover it with wood chips. This begins the gentle transformation
from human to soil. Over the next few weeks,
the body decomposes naturally. Microbes and bacteria
break down carbon, then protein, to create a new substance, a rich, earthy soil. This soil can then be used
to grow new life. Eventually, you could be a lemon tree. (Applause) Yeah, thank you. (Applause) Who’s thinking about
lemon meringue pie right now? (Laughter) A lemon drop? Something stronger? So in addition to housing the core, these buildings will function
to support the grieving by providing space for memorial services
and end-of-life planning. The potential for repurposing is huge. Old churches and industrial warehouses
can be converted into places where we create soil and honor life. We want to bring back the aspect of ritual that’s been diluted
over the past hundred years as cremation rates have risen and religious affiliation has declined. Our Seattle facility will function
as a model for these places all over the world. We’ve heard from communities
in South Africa, Australia, the UK, Canada and beyond. We’re creating a design toolkit that will help others
design and build facilities that will contain technical specifications and regulatory best practices. We want to help individuals,
organizations, and down the road, municipalities design and build facilities
in their own cities. The idea is that every one of these places
should look and feel completely different with the same system inside. They’re really meant to be designed
for the neighborhood in which they reside and the community which they serve. The other idea is
for supportive staff to be on hand to help families with the care
and preparation of loved ones’ bodies. We’re banishing practices
that bewilder and disempower and creating a system
that is beautiful and meaningful and transparent. We believe that access
to ecological death care is a human right. OK, so you know the old saying, if you can compost a cow,
you can compost a human? (Laughter) Turns out, it’s true. Since 2014, we’ve been
running a pilot project in the hills of North Carolina with the Forensic Anthropology Department
at Western Carolina University. Six donor bodies
have been covered in wood chips, oxygen provided by breezes, microbes and bacteria doing their jobs. This pilot program has allowed us
to demonstrate that it’s possible to harness the incredible power
of natural decomposition to turn human bodies into soil, and we’re working
with other universities as well. Soil scientists
at Washington State University, the grad students, anyway, are working to compost
teeth with amalgam fillings so that we can understand
what happens to the mercury therein. Next up, we’ll be beginning experiments to determine what happens
to chemo drugs and pharmaceuticals during the composting process, and whether additional
remediation will be needed. By the way, composting creates a great deal of heat, especially this particular
type of composting. One week after we began
composting our fifth donor body, the temperature inside
that mound of wood chips reached 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine harnessing that heat
to create energy or comfort the grieving on a cold day. I have to think it’s magic. And maybe, that’s the point
of all this. Science and magic –
they’re kind of the same thing. Thank you so much for joining me
on this journey to transform
this incredible human event. The death care revolution has begun. It’s an exciting time to be alive. (Applause)

58 thoughts on “Let’s talk about human composting | Katrina Spade | TEDxOrcasIsland

  1. Brilliant and beautiful! I deeply hope I am able to become one with Mother Earth. Thank you Katrina and everyone involved in this important, sacred and revolutionary project.

  2. I love the idea of returning to the earth from whence we came, of contributing my body to the topsoil. It just makes so much sense. Sign me up!

  3. Thank you Katrina, I'm so glad I was one of your sponsorsA fun, insightful and knowledge filled talk

  4. Go for it, Katrina! — and of course, all of people (scientists or otherwise) that are involved in the Urban Death Project. I am so glad that Canada is playing a part in this research, and hope that humyn composting will be an option when it is time for my final disposition.

  5. Genius.Thats the very way I want to shipped out.Hope idiots don't get involved with red tape and objections.


  7. Here in Thailand they just shove you in the temple oven. After you're burned, they hand the bones to the nearest relative which are then kept in a box in their home. Funny story, there was one Western guy who was too tall for the crematorium and had to be pushed bit by bit into the oven. When he was done, his bones were handed to his wife in a Tesco carrier bag. Makes me laugh when they say they want their ashes scattered over the Andaman sea, they don't grind them. So flinging them off some cliff top narrowly missing a soi dog then 😀

  8. I am just thinking about my own family over here in the UK ..from my dear grandfather who died in 1967 when I was 5 weeks old ,to even my aunt who passed away last year aged 93..NOT one of our family have been buried ,each and everyone cremated and most have their ashes sprinkled on a mountain top in Snowdonia north Wales..I'd def like to be composted ,it makes total sense.

  9. Ethical, ecological, space saving, intelligent and a perfect way to leave a legacy when we die. Your talk was delivered with so much respect too. Thank you and hope this idea goes global and soon.

  10. yuk……I would NOT eat from a garden where humans where used as compost , I could not eat a plant that used Uncle Jack's body to grow tomato plants, those tomato plants would have Jack"s microscopic particles too build it's own tomatoes, cannabalism is gross!

  11. beautifully delivered. had the same idea several months ago when I told my clise ones that I wanted an oak tree to grow from my dead body. Was more an ego thing but you miss have explained it in a more respectful, humble and meaningful way. You got a fan in Tanzania.

  12. This is exactly what I've been hoping to find. What a wonderful way to honor the earth and become part of it again.

  13. imagine we're standing on the land that's made up of others' bodies😣😣 enough horror😂😂
    anyway it's really an effective and creative way of death care

  14. I like the mushroom burial suit, but this is more of what I was looking for. Makes total sense. I hope this becomes available in all 50 states soon.

  15. I hope the clerics / priests of all religions come forward to support this, saving nature and our planet, doing away with all unnecessary rituals and just praying for the departed soul

  16. PLEASE leave climate change out of this… I get it! I really do. Climate change is a myth, so please don't spoil my beliefs about composting!! I compost at home, with a garden bigger than the typical Arizonian. I can totally be on board about composting people. NOT animals, however, because they were put on this earth to eat. Good luck to you, to spread the BASIC necessities of composting MAGIC. 🙂

  17. I'm reading Caitlin Doughty's book "From here to Eternity," and I was so fascinated by this idea mentioned in one of the chapters that I had to look it up!! This project is ingenious and as a student, I wish I could take part in something like this. An excellent ecological solution to death and an important educational experience, I love the stress on transparency!!

  18. You mention the use of water during the process. How much water would be needed to complete the decomposition of one body and where would this water come from? As to a facility, it would of course be a finite space, so a limited number of bodies would be decomposing at one time within that space. and for how long before space is made available for others? Could the heat created by the process be utilized for othere purposes? These question arei not to be construed as criticism but rather as a serious attempt to understand how these matters would be worked out.

  19. As a full fledged, God fearing, Jesus is Lord, cover to cover Bible thumping servant of Jesus, all I have to say is: Sign me up, too! God commands us to be good stewards.

  20. As a full fledged, God fearing, Jesus is Lord, cover to cover Bible thumping servant of Jesus, all I have to say is: Sign me up, too! God commands us to be good stewards.

  21. Such a beautiful idea to be made reality! I like that the bones also decompose into nature. 9months you say to totally return to the earth, when it also took 9months to get here✌plus the science makes so much sense❤ THANK YOU! Please come to build in Sacramento California, i welcome you!

  22. This is what I've always wanted!! So glad to see it being promoted here in the west. Hope it becomes legal soon.

  23. Although the idea of being turned into a bag of Miracle-Gro does have some ironic appeal to me personally (my garden would have the final victory over me! lol) my question would be: what happens to all of the junk and chemicals consumed by the human body over the years? Metal in the teeth, mercury from eating tuna fish, drugs in the bloodstream, etc?

  24. This is the way I have always wanted to be transformed. This is natural. I am of the earth and want to be with it always.

  25. Katrina’s opener while factually true, does not allow her to waste time wondering why she’s not invited to more dinner parties.

  26. Everyone is talking about how this is revolutionary. The concept of dust to dust is quite literally the way Muslims get buried. They arent used to specifically compost plants, but they do however have the benefit of occupying less space, being relatively cheap and environmentally friendly. The concept isn't exactly new.

  27. I always liked the idea of having been composted and have some good marijuana grown from the soil. You could get a friend stoned from beyond! Lol

  28. This is sick and inhumane to stock corpses in a swamp inside a monofunctional designed building. Most architects are usually twisted in a wierd manipulatory way.

  29. Didn't the Nazis already do this? You must have seen those mass graves. If someone indicates that s/he would like to be wrapped in a sheet (a biodegradable paper sheet, of course, no plastic Saran Wrap) and be put into the ground with some burial service (I would hope), that's great, humane and natural. So is having one’s ashes scattered over a forest, sea, or desert. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I get that. But compost heap? Really? And there are so many people (like insects they just won't stop rapidly reproducing). Soon, human composting will have to be automated, such as a bucket conveyor system, each bucket carrying a body to be dropped into a compost churner. Does this mean that my mother and father, aunts and uncles, the entire family could be used to fertilize my garden? Sorry, that's not for me. Just call me old fashion.

  30. Urban Death Project! Didn't the Nazis already do this? You must have seen those mass graves. If someone indicates that s/he would like to be wrapped in a sheet (a biodegradable paper sheet, of course, no plastic Saran Wrap) and be put into the ground with some burial service (I would hope), that's great, humane and natural. So is having one’s ashes scattered over a forest, sea, or desert. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I get that. But compost heap? Really? Will children along with their pets be added to the heap? And if it’s legal, why can’t it just be a family operation? Isn’t one of the goal to save money? And why not have a roadside stand selling human compost? And there are so many people (like insects, they just won't stop rapidly reproducing). Soon, human composting will have to be automated, such as a bucket conveyor system, each bucket carrying a body to be dropped into a compost churner. Does this mean that my mother and father, aunts and uncles, the entire family could be used to fertilize my garden? Aaugh—so eating a strawberry becomes cannibalistic? Sorry, that's not for me. Just call me old fashion.

  31. I want my natural blood and guts to sink into the soil so naturally. I like earthworms and have always fed them with organic matter.

  32. But bones don’t decompose quick enough. When I’m dead and all my flesh blood and guts is absorbed into the soil my bones will still remain. Wonderful!

  33. Our bodies completely replace themselves every 7 years. The atoms that make up our bodies at death have only been with us for 7 years at the most. We take in and let go of so much matter through out our experience here. Even breathing requires letting go before taking in again. All the dead have let go but some of the living don't want to. We are of the earth. We can let go and allow the earth to take us again.

  34. She mentioned that it uses an accelerated method, when compared to nature. I imagine that high density population centers would have trouble keeping up to demand. It couldn't possibly be a mere few-day process.

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