Several Western Carolina University students and a faculty member spent a recent bitterly cold weekend in the gray winter woods on campus, working on a project that may provide society with an alternative to traditional burial and cremation.
Cheryl Johnston, director of WCU’s Forensic Osteology Research Station, and the students are collaborating with Katrina Spade, founder and director of the Urban Death Project, in determining the most efficient way of composting humans after death. The goal of Spade’s project is to come up with a more natural way of handling the bodies of the deceased while simultaneously providing rich compost for the Earth.
Spade’s vision is to eventually build a three-story human composting facility. Friends and family of a deceased individual would place their loved-one’s body at the top, and the body would gradually move downward as it is reduced to compost, which the family and friends might choose to use in planting a tree.
An experiment with donated bodies is going on at the WCU research station, which is also known as FOREST and holds the distinction of being one of just six such facilities in the country. The WCU research to advance Spade’s idea began in the winter of 2015 with two bodies placed in “beds” of wood chips for study. To vary the conditions, alfalfa pellets and water were later added to one of the bodies.
The most recent phase of the project is focused on gaining a sharper understanding of the right mix of materials that should be used to reduce a human body to compost, said Johnston, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. “The micro-organisms that break the body down into material that is good for the soil need a certain balance of carbon, nitrogen and water to thrive,” she said. “The body itself is a source of nitrogen but copious amounts of materials rich in available carbon must be added to the wood chips to facilitate the micro-organisms.”
The current activity involves placing three donated bodies in wood chips with varying amounts of alfalfa and other composting materials. Over a recent four-day period, Jan. 16-19, bases of wood chips were prepared for all three bodies, but because only one body was available at that point, only one of the beds was completed, Johnston said. A second body donated since then will be placed in a bed with another mix of materials as soon as weather conditions allow it, and the third body will be placed as it is received, she said. In the meantime, monitoring of temperature and moisture in the beds will be continuous, she said.
Spade traveled from Seattle to the WCU campus to participate in the recent work, along with Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a Washington State University soil scientist who has studied composting as a way to dispose of the bodies of livestock and other animals, and one of Carpenter-Boggs’ graduate students. Another visitor on hand was Ashley Ahearn, an environmental reporter at Seattle public radio station KUOW who plans to feature the Urban Death Project on a podcast she is creating for National Public Radio.
WCU’s Office of Sustainability and Energy Management, part of the Department of Facilities Management, has been supporting the research of the Urban Death Project, said Lauren Bishop, WCU’s chief sustainability officer. “It’s not every day that we have an opportunity to be involved in such an exceptional endeavor,” Bishop said. WCU’s grounds crew has been providing wood chips for the project, and most of the materials being used are “upcycled” from other campus projects and otherwise would wind up in a landfill, she said.
“Our involvement has led to some interesting discussions about the topic and sustainability in general,” Bishop said. “Death is something that we all have in common, yet it is difficult for many to discuss. I see this project as a solution for many folks and municipalities that want a dignified and affordable alternative means of caring for the deceased.”
Two interns from the Office of Sustainability and Energy Management, sophomore parks and recreation management major Joseph Guseman and senior environmental science major Zack Waldroup, have been assisting with the Urban Death Project activities on campus. Guseman said he was excited when Bishop asked him if he wanted to help with the project. “For many, the idea of helping with such a project would make them run in the other direction, but for me it sounded like an amazing opportunity to help complete research that might change how the world deals with the deceased,” he said.
In the coming months, Guseman will be working with Christopher Eakes, a senior majoring in anthropology with a forensic anthropology concentration, to monitor the new beds. Eakes already has been monitoring the compost beds established a year ago, Johnston said.
Waldroup’s participation has included building the platforms on which the beds are placed, and the fencing to go around them. “Once you get past the initial shock of acting in a manner different than traditional customs dictate, it’s an awesome idea and makes a lot of sense,” he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed participating in the project and would encourage everyone to look into its concept.”
Two other seniors with forensic anthropology concentrations, Christa Kelly and Jessica Walker, are taking Johnston’s “Practicum in Forensic Anthropology” class and are assisting with the project as part of the class.
For more information about WCU’s participation in the Urban Death Project, contact Johnston at 828-227-2816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.