A Profile by EndWell
Katrina has been an entrepreneur and designer since 2002. She has over 15 years of experience in project management, finance, and architecture, with a focus on human-centered, ecological solutions. While earning her Masters of Architecture, Katrina invented a system to transform the dead into soil, which is now patent-pending. In 2014, she founded the 501c3 Urban Death Project to bring attention to the problem of a toxic, dis-empowering funeral industry. In 2017, she founded Recompose, a Public Benefit Corporation. Today, she shares with us how her organization is improving the relationship people have with death and dying.
How is your organization innovating around the end-of-life experience?
Recompose is a new model of death care that facilitates a deeper connection with nature and invites a more conscious relationship with death. At its heart is a patent-pending system which gently transforms bodies into soil.
We hope that for some, this option will be almost spiritual — an ecological, productive, and beautiful thing to do with our physical bodies after we’ve died.
One of our core tenets is that each of us has the capacity to care for a loved one who has died. It’s a basic human act, and in the olden days everyone participated. As well, we believe that the act of caring for a loved one’s body can be incredibly empowering. So as part of the Recompose model, families are encouraged to participate in the care and preparation of the body, alongside our staff.
What are your priorities in this work?
Right now, we’re finishing a pilot with researchers at Washington State University, to demonstrate that recomposition is safe and sustainable. We’re drafting a bill in Washington State, which will make recomposition (the conversion of human remains to soil) a legal option for disposition. And we are in the early design stages of Recompose|SEATTLE, the first place in the world where folks will be able to be Recomposed.
One of our main priorities is getting to know funders who are heart-aligned, and who may want to invest in our work. It’s an exciting time!
If you could wave a magic wand, what would appear?
Oooh, I want a magic wand! I’d order up fresh funeral laws (for every state) that expand death care options and scrub out all of the archaic junk we currently have to deal with.
And a big lovely warehouse space for Recompose|SEATTLE.
And oodles of funding so that we can begin opening Recompose Centers all over the world, and create a toolkit to help others do the same.
And some dill pickles, my favorite food.
Whom do you consider part of the “positive conspiracy” in your efforts to transform the consumer end-of-life experience?
So many groups are working on end-of-life issues, it’s just an awesome time to be doing this. Some of my favorites are the “death with dignity” folks, whom I consider to be doing the most challenging work in terms of cultural shifting. “Death Doulas” have been practicing much of what Recompose plans to offer in terms of ritual and end-of-life consciousness for decades. And academics like Tanya Marsh are helping consumers understand why the funeral industry is the way it is (spoiler alert: it is not due to some centuries-old cultural tradition.)
Finally, a shout out to my sister Julie Bernstein in Portland, who is a physician assistant in geriatric medicine at OHSU. Her team is protecting older patients from some of the most common complications that can occur in the hospital setting, and making sure that end-of-life goals are always part of the conversation.
What advice would you give to other leaders interested in changing the end-of-life experience?
I’d say: be bold! If you have an idea that you are sure will positively impact even 3% of the population when it comes to their end-of-life experience, make it happen.
Death is such a personal thing, and it’s also universal. In my mind, that makes us ALL experts when it comes to the event. There’s no wrong way to go about the end-of-life, as long as it’s framed with consciousness, compassion, and empathy.
In your organization’s long-range planning (3–5 years out), what does the end-of-life experience feel like to a consumer and his or her circle of caregivers?
For the dying person, we hope the opportunity to be recomposed will be a source of comfort, satisfaction…maybe even joy. It’s a chance to be productive one final time, to give back to the earth that’s sustained us all our lives.
For the circle of caregivers, we want to provide a sense of empowerment, and a ritual that feels authentic. And of course, friends and family will be able to take the soil created and grow a tree or nourish a garden.
Katrina Spade has a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been featured in the Guardian, NPR, Wired, Fast Company, and the NYTimes. She is an Echoing Green Fellow.
Special thank you to our partners at Medecision for making this project possible.
For someone who thinks about death for a living, Katrina Spade is far from morbid. Her company, Recompose, seeks to impart life back into the death care industry by developing a process that converts human remains into fertile soil for growing.
"We're really letting nature do its own job," Spade tells mbg from her home in Seattle. "We create the environment that allows naturally occurring microbes to break a body down using high-carbon materials like wood chips, carbon, and moisture." While this process is a lot like the decay that would naturally occur in an environment like the forest floor, Recompose wants to make it possible in crowded cities and trickier terrains. "We're taking what I think is beautiful about natural burial—which is returning to the earth quite directly—and making it scalable."
The first Recompose facility—part public park, part memorial—will be arriving in Seattle over the next few years. From there, Spade hopes to give those across the country access to a natural return to the earth. While families will still have the opportunity to participate in a traditional burial ceremony, with Recompose they will return to a lush, growing tree or flower plot instead of a tombstone.
An architect by trade, Spade designed this system to ease the environmental toll of traditional burial. "Right now we rely almost exclusively on cremation and conventional burial, and both of those processes have a significant carbon footprint." She dove into the numbers in her Ted Talk that has garnered over a million views: In U.S. cemeteries, we bury enough metal each year to build the Golden Gate Bridge all over again, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes. Cremation takes its toll too, emitting 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually in the United States. Considering that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day in this country, these figures aren't likely to go down anytime soon. As Spade puts it, "The awful truth is that the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it. I want to push back against these defaults that aren't aligned with our ideals and interests as people."
In an increasingly eco-minded age, Recompose is just one part of the burgeoning conservation burial movement. Other new companies like Bios Urn seek to turn human remains into the soil for a tree, while "progressive mortician" Caitlin Doughty has penned entire books on how more natural forms of burial inspired by other cultures can become the norm in the United States.
Spade only sees this momentum continuing. "There's something really profound about thinking about the last gesture, the last thing we'll do on the planet, and whether that will be something that furthers the next generation or detracts from it."
Ashoka Announces eleven new 2018 fellows
What will our food system look like in 10 years? What are the right fixes for our criminal justice system? Is the funeral industry ready to be transformed? Can a solution for workforce development created in the Appalachia show us the future?
Right now, all across the country, social innovators are taking on our biggest challenges. They imagine a new way forward and build it for everyone, for the good of all. We are thrilled to welcome our 2018 U.S. Fellows.