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March 2, 2016 | Lindsay Booker

UpStart with Katrina Spade: A Chance to Do Good in Death

When Katrina Spade first became a Fellow in 2014, the Urban Death Project existed solely on paper and in the brain of an earnest, innovative leader with an unlikely idea to reconnect people in urban spaces to nature. Katrina’s proposal for an alternative death care option is all about helping people return to the earth by way of the composting system she designed. And the innovation doesn’t stop there.

At Echoing Green’s inaugural UpStart (our new morning talk series launched in February that features bold and inspiring ideas from the Echoing Green community), Katrina shared her vision of a future where we can add to the environment, not harm it, when we die. 

In the last year and a half she’s taken the Urban Death Project beyond plan to reality; she has formed research partnerships with Washington State and Western Carolina University (where they test the safety of human composting to fit her designs), and she’s become an active member of America’s alternative death care community. Katrina also ran a massively successful Kickstarter campaign to take the nonprofit to the next level–it’s been key to growing both financial and cultural support. Her innovative approach to the work brings together thinkers across sectors to create a dramatic change in the way we approach death care in urban areas of the United States.


Katrina Spade '14, founder of the Urban Death Project. Photo courtesy of the Urban Death Project.

Needless to say, we learned a ton about the Urban Death Project during UpStart. Three things we were especially struck by during Katrina’s talk:

 Partnerships will be key to bringing this option for death care to cities across the country.

Every state has a different set of regulations and laws concerning burial and composting practices. Katrina’s partnerships don’t just help refine the design of the system – they help research laws and determine pathways forward to implementing the work.

 Cultural acceptance of cremation may be a blueprint for composting becoming a viable option for the American palette.

Nowadays, the choice between conventional burial and cremation is about 50:50 – but just half a century ago, only 3% of Americans were choosing to be cremated. Composting may not become universal – but having a new choice on the burial market may tip the scale in a new, more environmentally sound direction.

 This isn’t for everyone.

Not because it’s about death, which understandably can make many squeamish or uncomfortable. Key to the Urban Death Project is the notion of alternative: this is another option in a binary, environmentally harmful industry. For some, this process may go against religious traditions–but for others who may find meaning by contributing their bodies to the creation of a natural urban environment, there may be something here to embrace. We’re placing a bet that this is true.

UpStart Your Leadership

While we learned a lot about the Urban Death Project, we also learned an important lesson about leadership from Katrina that morning.

Katrina is dynamic, affable, and passionate about the Urban Death Project. As she shared her idea and next steps with the UpStart audience, it was obvious that her ability to foresee the opportunities her vision can create are helping to bring openness to alternative death care to new spaces. It’s clear that holding true to a unique vision gives people something to rally behind–even when the idea seems more sci-fi than reality.

Go Deeper

Echoing Green's UpStart talks feature the bold ideas of our Fellows alongside a guest-led Q&A discussion about the broader implications of their work.

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