Urban Orchard Project : A New Option in Funerary Practice

Allison Crowley, Assoc. AIA

The Urban Orchard Project is an educational, environmental, and human initiative that changes our relationship with death.

The Urban Orchard Project is an educational, environmental, and human initiative that changes our relationship with death. If knowing we will die is part of what makes us human, does ignoring mortality threaten our humanity? Keeping death to the periphery of our cities and our minds disconnects us from an important part of our physical, mental, and spiritual existence.

Western death tradition in particular presents a social convention designed to confine grief. The Urban Orchard Project combats that confinement by letting death sprawl through a new kind of funerary ceremony that establishes public intimacy and fosters community. The goal is to draw awareness of death and grief into the heart of the city while diminishing land use and interred toxins from traditional burial, as well as chemicals expelled from cremation processes. Using the Urban Orchard website interface, an individual can plan and document their burial preferences. Urban Orchard personnel assist in pre-planning, anticipating difficult conversations and decisions usually left to the bereaved, who often become victims to the up-selling funeral industry.

Urban Orchard personnel also assist in implementing home care and body preparation, empowering family members and friends to interact with their deceased in intimate ways otherwise not available to them : washing the body, brushing the hair, enacting a gentler release of the relationship and ushering them into the next phase. Shrouded in organic cotton and buried first in an 18-month-rated biodegradable sleeve, the body is then interred into a direct energy transfer interment system that is designed to support the gesture of both living and dead bodies while existing on an urban street corner. With each body, a paper birch tree is planted, growing as the body decomposes naturally. Its location in an urban setting invites pedestrians, if not to participate in the actual interment ceremony, to recognize death and grief within their own neighborhoods, compelling awareness, reflection, and compassion. After one year the tree is relocated within its biodegradable sleeve. Because the body's energy has fully transferred to the tree, zoning no longer prevents an individual from planting that tree in their private yard. Though, with urban land being scarce, a tree can be gifted to the city for use in parks, new construction, and brownfield reclamation, an accumulation of acres of urban forest. After the relocation of the tree, the planter remains street-side for recycling and reuse.

The average funeral in the United States costs between $12,000 and $15,000, which is largely prohibitive. Recycling a planter protects a family's finances without stripping the ceremony of "dignity", a word so often used by funeral directors to up-sell their products. This also provides the city with a low-cost option for processing the unclaimed deceased. The Urban Orchard Project presents a transparent funerary ceremony that interrupts your shopping trip or your commute to work. It acts as catalyst for awareness, reminds us that our anonymous urban community is in a state of mourning, and that grief witnessed is grief abated.

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Allison Crowley, Assoc. AIA