Imagine strolling through a cemetery at night, the wooded path softly illuminated by a canopy of glowing pods filled with human remains suspended overhead and transforming decomposition into electricity until the body is finally gone. The cycle of life complete, the light then dims to dark, the pod taken down and replaced by a bright new body shining down upon the path from its star-like grave.
While this may sound like the stuff of science fiction, in reality it’s a reimagined cemetery of the future called the Sylvan Constellation, a system where microbial fuel cells facilitate the body’s decomposition and transform it into light. More than a ghostly fantasy, this project from DeathLAB — a Columbia University–based interdisciplinary research and design initiative rethinking how we live with death in the metropolis — is a potential solution to one of the biggest problems cities are facing: We’re running out of space to store the dead, and the way we do it now is environmentally disastrous.
While we think of traditional cemeteries as peaceful and pastoral resting places replete with perennially green grass, winding paths, and vibrant trees, they are actually little more than toxic wastelands full of the chemicals and materials we use to bury the dead. The typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, 900-plus tons of casket steel, and another 20,000 tons of vault concrete. On top of that, there’s enough embalming fluid to fill a swimming pool, plus gallons of pesticides and fertilizer used to keep the picturesque lawns preternaturally green. Cremation is no better: According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, each year cremation emits the equivalent of 41,040 cars worth of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the United States alone.
To make matter worse, most cemeteries in urban centers — where 81 percent of Americans live — are already near or at capacity. In New York, no new cemeteries have been established in more than 50 years, and no burials have been permitted south of 86th Street in Manhattan in more than 150 years. And the problem isn’t going away: Each year, 2.6 million people die in the United States, and that number is expected to increase as some 76 million Americans reach age 60 or older by 2020.
While there’s plenty of land for the dead in the country’s rural areas, this urban space crunch is a problem because “people want to be buried where they lived,” according to Carlton Basmajian, associate professor of regional planning and urban design at Iowa State University and co-author of several studies on planning space for the dead.
That’s where the Sylvan Constellation and other futuristic cemetery concepts come in. Fantastical as it may sound, the Sylvan Constellation may one day be a reality. DeathLAB is currently researching a prototype of its shining necropolis at the Arnos Vale Cemetery, a classic Victorian burial ground in Bristol, England.
Other eccentric future cemeteries are also underway, like the aptly named Urban Death Project. Created by death activist and architect Katrina Spade, the Urban Death Project is an environmentally sustainable death care system for urban dwellers grounded in the idea that “our bodies are full of life-giving potential.” And that potential can be tapped in the form of human composting.
The process of composting bodies — dubbed “recomposition” by Spade — is simple: The body is placed beneath a mound of wood chips and sawdust, which aid the microbial and bacterial reactions that break down the body, eventually rendering it to nothing more than a pile of nutrient-rich dirt, which Spade hopes will be used to plant memorial flora in urban areas.
But Spade has bigger plans than simply turning humans into soil. The crux of the project is the facility where this composting process will take place: a beautifully designed modern sanctuary built within city limits and centered around a three-story “core” — the compost pile itself — where families themselves place their loved ones and add the first wood chips. In this sense, the Urban Death Project addresses all the issues of death in the city: It’s eco-friendly and doesn’t take up limited space, and the final disposition takes place in the city itself.
The project is nearing the launch of a pilot program at Washington State University, where Spade and her team will test the recomposition process. Eventually, she hopes to build the first facility in Seattle, and then develop a template that other cities can use for their own urban deaths.
Not every new death scheme is as dramatic as the Sylvan Constellation or Urban Death Project. While these projects aim to completely reimagine the modern cemetery, there is a simpler (and ancient) approach: green or natural burial.
In a green burial, the unembalmed body is placed directly into the ground in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket, which was the typical practice before the Civil War, when bodies began being embalmed and cemeteries were created to house them. While green burial eliminates the waste and contamination brought on by the traditional funeral (lacquered caskets, steel rods, concrete vaults, formaldehyde, etc.), its greater purpose is as a tool for land conservation: By designating large swaths of land as burial sites, these areas can be permanently preserved and saved from development.
Still, green burial is a niche (but growing) movement: 167 cemeteries in the United States offer space for green burials, but only 10 of those are dedicated conservation areas. Additionally, this method does not solve the major issue plaguing urban cemeteries: People want to be buried where they lived. Not only are these urban centers running out of burial space, but they’re also in areas where large pieces of land are farther away, harder to come by, and priced at a premium — adding even more of a challenge to the equation.
“When you talk about taking hundreds or thousands of acres of land and using it for a purpose like this, that’s land taken out of the development pot forever, ostensibly,” Basmajian said. “And you reach a point where this becomes an extraordinarily difficult proposition.”
With this in mind, existing cemeteries are getting creative with the space they already have or the limited space available to them for new development. This is manifesting itself in vertical burials, where bodies are buried in a standing position rather than a sleeping one; grave sharing, or burying five or six caskets on top of each other in a single plot; and even grave recycling, essentially “renting” a grave out to a body for a designated amount of time (usually 20 years), after which the family can pay to keep the body there or have it moved to a mass grave so a new body can temporarily occupy the plot.
While some of these practices are common in countries such as Singapore, Germany, and Belgium, in many cultures — the United States included — these methods often ignite cultural sensitivities around what should and shouldn’t happen to a corpse.
“There’s this whole effort of trying to figure out what to do with bodies and how to move forward, and they’re all interesting conceptually, but they all also confront the conservatism and cautiousness of Americans around what’s going to happen to their loved one,” said David Sloane, professor of public policy at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming book Is the Cemetery Dead?
Of course, it’s not impossible to imagine a shift in the cultural mentality surrounding death; it’s happened before. In 1960, just over 3 percent of Americans chose cremation for their final disposition. Today, cremation outpaces burial in many states in the United States and is expected to take care of 56 percent of the country’s deceased by 2020. While this signals an adaptability on the part of Americans, it also creates its own problem: With an increasing number of cremains comes another crunch for space, this time in the columbaria that serve as memorials for ash-filled urns.
Again, this issue is especially relevant in big cities, where there is limited space for building large mausoleums, so cemeteries are employing technology to get creative. Several Asian cities, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo, have constructed giant mechanized columbaria where thousands of urns are stored in vaults deep within the building’s core and can be retrieved with the swipe of an electronic card. One such mausoleum, the Ruriden columbarium operated by the Koukokuji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo, has taken this idea even further, creating what Gizmodo called “The Most High-Tech Cemetery in the World.” At Ruriden, each urn is given its own small altar on a vast wall of identical alcoves, each filled with a glass Buddha statue. The walls are lit in various colors with LED lights, and when visitors swipe their corresponding card, the altar housing their loved one’s remains lights up. Ruriden can hold 2,046 urns, each for a 33-year period, after which they are moved to a crypt beneath the sanctuary’s floor.
In an even grander scheme, a Hong Kong–based design studio developed Floating Eternity, an offshore columbarium island that could hold 370,000 urns out at sea. And in Oslo, a student designed a skyscraper cemetery with spaces for coffins, urns, and a computerized memorial wall that would stretch hundreds of feet into the sky.
These may sound like fantastical solutions to an all but invisible problem in a culture where discussing death is taboo. But as we work toward a more sustainable future, Sloane says, “It’s fair to say that what’s going to be imaginable 50 years from now is not what we would imagine today.”
In this futuristic world, it’s possible your own death may nourish the earth, or land you high in the sky, or shine bright ly— at least until your final remains have gone without a trace.