The cemetery’s days may be numbered. In the future, though death continues to be inevitable, how our culture deals with it may not be. At my alma mater, Columbia University, an active group of architects, philosophers, ecologists, and planners are reconsidering the options we have in the rituals and final repose for humans after they die. DeathLab is a project headed by Karla Maria Rothstein, a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Her team has developed serious proposals as alternatives to the current end of life practices, burial, or cremation.
The current issue of Columbia Magazine has a great introduction to the DeathLab program and a profile of Karla Rothstein. Her DeathLab team has researched cultural, spiritual, and practical issues having to do with death. They provide some alarming data when looking at the sustainability of our current practices. The immense size of the space required for the practice of embalming and burying human bodies is illustrated in a graphic imposed on the grid of New York City. Within months, an amazing number of coffins, if lined up in rows, would take up virtually all the streets and public spaces in the city. And the chemicals involved in preparing the body are toxins that ultimately risk soil and water contamination. Cremation isn’t much better. The amount of energy to complete the process for just one body could provide a typical home enough energy for a month.
The proposed alternatives are based on ecological, pragmatic, and artful solutions. The most interesting is the concept of cremation by a slow microbial process. The controlled decay, as described on the DeathLab website, takes a full year. At the end of the year, the body is completely broken down. Though you couldn’t call them ashes, apparently the material produced will be comparable to cremated remains.
With some biochemical wizardry, the energy produced over the entire year will produce a constant glowing light. These light pods, arranged in an appropriate public space, are featured in new sites for private and shared grieving. DeathLab calls one proposed site Constellation Park. Located under the Manhattan Bridge, the image of memory and final repose will be visible from all over the city. Whether or not this ultimately will be realized, the prospect should help us all take a serious and fresh look at the spaces and rituals of death.