Some of the most innovative and creative ideas when it comes to funerals have come from the field of architecture. Cemetery architecture addresses how cemeteries and death, in general, are integrated into our lives as an active and continued form of remembrance.
Most people visualize architecture regarding the afterlife as a large monument. The pyramids and burial tombs of ancient Egypt hold a place of fascination and wonder in our minds, even millennia later. These monumental structures, thought to be designed to be a site to prepare and secure safe passage into the afterlife, integrated death into daily life in a visual way. The catacombs of Paris combine massive engineering and construction in their seemingly endless maze of passages with the needs of a modern and changing world while remaining part of a bustling metropolis.
These monumental feats of architecture and engineering stand out as common knowledge in the modern world. Simultaneously, other cultures have observed more temporary burial markers, selecting materials that fade away and return to nature as a way to remember the dead. Whether integrated into our communities or made into a unique and separate space, where we choose to place and remember our dead is something that will not carry through time. How we memorialize our dead will demonstrate to future cultures how the community we live in today interacts with those we have laid to rest.
Innovations in the way we create this space do not dismiss a past way of doing things as outdated or obsolete. Instead, they provide new outlets for those who find comfort in a choice based on personal logic to a new and currently underserved community, those who do not fully connect with cemeteries in the modern world.
One of the most innovative groups working in this space is the Death Lab at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York City. (1) The Death Lab’s founder Karla Rothstein presents new ideas about what might be a future mode of disposition. Currently, the culture in the United States and many countries around the world have a very rigid structure and image of what we envision when thinking about where bodies remain for eternity. That vision usually centers on a grave in a cemetery where someone will be buried and remain undisturbed forever.
Beliefs on where and how we utilize a burial ground are not the same everywhere. In some parts of the world, families rent the grave for the period that the body decomposes. After which the remains are dug up and placed in an ossuary or crypt, making the grave usable for the next individual who needs it.
The right to remain buried in the same grave forever in these places comes with a hefty price. The catacombs of Paris owe their existence to a time of high death rates due to sickness that outpaced the capacities of the cemeteries that existed. Even though we think of a graveyard as being a rigid unchangeable idea, there have been many changes in how we bury people throughout recent history, from crypts that hold thousands of individuals’ bones to ossuaries that contain the ashes of many. Some cemeteries at various points in history were in use as public parks while serving as in unison as graveyards. The evolution of our cultural preferences has distanced us from many of these past practices. Practices that may very well fulfill the ecological or personalized goals we have for burials today. (2)
The “Light After Life” project centers around the fact that “bodies are rich sources of biomass — an energy conversion that is both respectful to the living city and a fitting tribute of past individuality.”(3) The proposed plan suggests a meandering walkway that infuses into a cityscape, which holds within it a “constellation of serially reusable funerary vessels. that produce ‘mourning light’ that waxes and wanes during the organic conversion.”(4)
The light derived from the biogas emitted as part of the controlled anaerobic bio-conversion that accelerates the decomposition of a corpse would allow for a small amount of organic material to be returnable to the family after the decomposition process.
With options like human composting finding legalization in parts of the United States, options like Light after Life stand a chance of becoming an actual reality with public acceptance and integration.
Another of their proposed projects is called “Constellation Park” and takes the same bioluminescent decomposition vessels and integrates them in a stunning manifestation of a futurist cemetery suspended under the bridges of New York City. According to Death Lab, this project creates a suspended memorial space that could serve as a “collective urban cenotaph for intimate individual memorials.”
The lifecycle of the illuminating vessels has more deep integrations with how we live utilizing a year-long cycle for the vessel. This year-long cycle draws on grief processes that coincide with the brightness and dimming of the lights that emit throughout the year. The brightest lights emerge in the first few months before they begin to grow dimmer throughout the year, ending with a release of the stored energy at the end of the roughly year-long process. The light then becomes bright again for the final few weeks.
As our world begins to consider our limited resources and space in densely populated urban landscapes, we might find benefit in forcing an evolution of thought. This evolution could bring the beauty of life and death back into our daily lives, whether by word, thought, or a light in the night sky.
For more interesting topics that discuss death in a world of technology, check out: Digital Remains by J.H. Harrington. Available anywhere books are sold.
(1) “Death Lab,” Columbia GSPP, Accessed June 1, 2020.
(2) Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death Over the Last One Thousand Years. Vintage; 2nd edition (July 22, 2008).
(3) “Light After Life.” Non Architecture Competitions. Accessed June 1, 2020.
(4) “Light After Life.”