From Compost You Came and to Compost You Shall Return

Can religious groups get behind the Urban Death Project’s environmental plan for the dead?

A visitor prays at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson June 30, 2014 at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York.
A visitor prays at a gravesite in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York, in 2014.  

Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

If Katrina Spade gets her way, using decomposed corpses as fertilizer will be as common a practice as traditional burial and cremation. Spade is the founder of the Urban Death Project, an organization that plans to compost dead bodies with woodchips inside a three-story concrete core. The New York Times recently called it “a startling next step in the natural burial movement” and in May the project’s Kickstarter raised more than $90,000 to design its first composting facility, which should break ground in Seattle by 2022. 

The model is meant to be more ecological than the embalming and nonbiodegradable caskets associated with burial, and than the greenhouse gases caused by cremation. But its perceived rejection of existing death rites might also be its biggest stumbling block.

Spade, who isn’t religious, created the Urban Death Project out of a desire to have an ideology guiding her death ceremony. “Growing up in rural New Hampshire, nature was the closest thing we had to spirituality,” she told me. “We weren’t religious, we’ve never gone to church, and yet we don’t not believe in something bigger than ourselves.” But she doesn’t think that the Urban Death Project has to conflict with other ideologies. “If you’re an enlightened person, you recognize your connection to every other human being. It’s beautiful to be able to celebrate, recognize, and encourage this idea that we’re part of this larger ecosystem. It gives me comfort.”

Spirituality is personal, and different believers may practice different ways. But the origins of death practices in many religions are particularly murky. Neither the Bible nor the Quran include clear instructions for disposing of the dead, but over the years Jewish, Christian, and Muslim rituals have developed based on theologians’ interpretations of scriptural clues. Genesis 3:19’s edict “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” was read as an instruction to bury the dead. In 5:31 of the Quran, a raven scratches the Earth to indicate where to put Adam’s son’s body, which has also been interpreted as a mandate for burial. The concept of the body being formed by God in his image is popular in many religions and has been used to forbid everything from cremation to organ donation.

For many, the act of composting a body can be seen as sacrilegious. “This idea that human remains are just a waste product seems to me disrespectful. It’s anti-historical. Every culture shows some respect for its dead,” Bob Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association, told me. And although Fells’ reaction is not unusual, the history of funeral rites is full of new technologies overcoming old traditions. Despite the perception of set dogmas, changes in liturgical interpretation don’t flout traditions; by adapting to modern sensibilities, they often keep them alive.

In Israel, where space is at a premium, residents have embraced vertical cemeteries, though, historically, Jewish customs favor burial. A 70-foot-tall condominium for stacked graves in the Yarkon Cemetery outside Tel Aviv has found a loophole for burying in the sky and not the ground: placing pipes filled with dirt inside its columns. Orthodox scholars have embraced the practice, claiming it’s not only sensible but also a return to ancient Jewish burials in catacombs and caves.

Others have found clever ways of reconciling state and religious laws. Vanderbilt University professor Leor Halevi told me that because the Muslim practice of not using a coffin isn’t always allowed in U.S. cemeteries, a group of enterprising Americans have designed a coffin with an opening at the bottom. The invention’s 2004 U.S. patent application claims the casket allows the body to touch the earth yet remain “enclosed, in accordance with a number of existing laws regarding burial,” and that the body can rest on its side, “so that it may face Mecca.”

Even when religious texts provide specific guidelines for funeral rites, they remain open to interpretation. Though the Hindu Puranas and the Dharma Shastra clearly dictate that believers older than 2 be cremated, that isn’t always the practice, according to Amy Allocco, professor of religious studies at Elon University. Especially outside of India, there is a custom among some Hindus of burying the dead on ancestral land. “In the diaspora, it has to do with land rules, space, and post-colonial ideas of progress,” she said. “It depends on which set of texts your community follows and whether there are mitigating factors.”

Funeral rites have been subject to the whims of popularity as well. When cremation became fashionable among the intelligentsia and the health conscious in the late 19th century, the Protestant Church allowed the practice based on the often-quoted, never attributed rationale that, “God can resurrect a bowl of ashes just as conveniently as he can resurrect a bowl of dust.” It took off in the following decade, and the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, when a catechism announced it was permitted “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” The reasons cited were practical; Catholic cemeteries were running out of space, and burial was prohibitively expensive for some believers.

But Tom Laqueur, a University of California–Berkeley professor and author of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, due out in October, doesn’t believe that the Catholic reversal had anything to do with finances. Laqueur said the Catholic ban on cremation didn’t become concrete until 1880, when the practice took off among progressives who wanted to use this new cremation technology, moving death’s importance out of the churchyard, in what Laqueur calls an “in-your-face anti-clerical” move. “There was no theological reason for the ban,” he said. “The people who were for cremation were the church’s enemies, freemasons, and secularists.” According to Laqueur, this is one of many scuffles over the dead, an example of a historical move from family burial grounds to the churchyard to secular and national cemeteries. By that logic, the Urban Death Project is a means of asserting the importance of environmentalism as a belief system.

“Why haven’t we chucked the dead over a wall? We humans make the dead into important representations of the community,” Laqueur said. “The ecology movement is saying the dead are part of nature, that ecology is central to human life. Whatever is culturally important to you, in this case ecology, what you do with the dead is a way of making it concrete.”

But Laqueur’s model of clashing, mutually exclusive ideologies doesn’t seem to apply here. The theologians I spoke with were reluctant to write off the Urban Death Project, especially its environmentalist mission, as sacrilegious. Religion and conservation have an intertwined history in the United States, but environmentalism itself has become an ideology, a structure of thought that can inform everything from what you eat, to how you travel, to whom you date. It has become so popular, pervasive, and important that religious leaders are reluctant to dismiss even a “startling” and radical green concept like composting your grandmother.

The Rev. Brian Baker, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, California, and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, said that other than “the ick factor,” there was nothing to prevent Episcopalians from participating in the Urban Death Project. Given the importance of environmentalism to his congregation, he wouldn’t be surprised to see it gain traction.

“This is much better stewardship of the Earth and human resources and land than putting up a cement crypt and a coffin that obligates people to care for it,” he said. “We’re not a doctrinal church. It’s not like a church body would say yes or no, it’s more like Episcopalians do it and so it becomes church practice.”

Muslims wanting to participate in the Urban Death Project may hit some theological obstacles. In Islam, while burial in a shroud and natural decomposition are consistent with the Urban Death Project’s model, its compost harvesting might be seen as disinterment, considered a forbidden mutilation of the body. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that scholars may be able to argue around the issue.

“If it’s two years later, and there’s nothing left of the body, could it logically be called mutilation?” said Hooper, who stressed Islam’s conservationist cred. “You might get some people saying, ‘Well it amounts to mutilation if you take that product and use it for mulch,’ but someone else might say this is very in keeping with the green message of Islam.”

Catholics’ relationship to environmentalism gained a national stage after Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, which called on humanity “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat [global] warming.” But conservationism, including green death rituals, predates the pope’s message. The Albany, New York, Diocese and a Trappist monastery in Virginia both host designated green burial spaces that don’t allow embalmed bodies or metal coffins, according to Teresa Berger, a professor of Catholic theology who has already planned her ecological burial and uses her future pinewood coffin as a bookshelf in her office at Yale Divinity School. For Catholics, she said, the Urban Death Project’s biggest challenge may be sacred space; even ashes are not supposed to be scattered but must be buried or placed in a Catholic cemetery.

St. John’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Darien, Connecticut.
St. John’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Darien, Connecticut.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

“The Catholic Church is moving in a direction of greater openness toward what might be described not only as changing funeral practices but especially ecologically intended funeral practices,” Berger said. “Given that this is the Catholic Church, it typically changes at a glacial speed.”

According to Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, coffin-less burial and natural decomposition are in keeping with Jewish customs. One obstacle might be the biblical concept of kever avot (grave of the fathers), the idea of a distinct and lasting resting place, though Nevins said the concept has been forgone before, citing the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where bodies are buried on top of one another due to space constraints.

A ban on “profiting from the dead” may also pose a problem, but Nevins thought the concept does have a precedent of being overridden for the sake of saving a life with organ donation. Nevins might even bring the Urban Death Project proposal before the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards.

Even if the Urban Death Project isn’t the right model for every religion, it does reflect the general direction in which religions might turn for death rituals as they come to terms with the practical problem of lack of space and the moral imperative to care for the planet.

The Urban Death Project’s most “startling” characteristic is its less individualized approach to death. It forgoes the permanent property of an individual grave, the perceived cleanliness of cremation, in the interest of the messy prospect of truly being folded back into the earth. It may seem “startling” now, but its collectivist philosophy draws on the direction in which religions are moving and on the morality at the core of belief. Spade’s philosophy that relies on interconnection with others through your small role in a larger ecosystem seems to echo the pope’s encyclical, which claims that the stories in Genesis “bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others.”