The way we bury our dead hasn’t changed much over the past two thousand years. But it needs to change soon, according to a group of designers, philanthropic foundations, and funeral directors who sponsored a recent design competition to rethink burial traditions in the face of emerging problems with the status quo. It's a less less macabre concept than it sounds.
In fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to change the way we bury each other. For one thing, we’re running out of space: in cities especially, cemetery overcrowding is a major problem. More importantly, both burial and cremation are surprisingly bad for the environment, not to mention the health of the living—our dental fillings, for example, release thousands of pounds of mercury into the atmosphere when we’re cremated.
What’s holding up a revolution in the way we bury our dead? The answer is complex. Most of us are uncomfortable with talking candidly about death, and ritual is there to help to calm that anxiety. There are also legal hurdles with unconventional burials, not to mention challenges from the established commercial industry that surrounds funerals. Still, the “natural burial” movement, which seeks to make bural more eco-friendly, is gaining momentum. So are less conventional burial methods, from space-borne ashes to fireworks.
So in April, Designboom launched Design for Death, a competition that invited designers to propose new burial methods. In the end, they received 2,050 proposals and distributed over $100,000 in prize money. A group of jurors—including architect Richard Meier, artist Ray Ceasar, and the director of the National Funeral Directors Association—voted to pick the best.
Some of them are trite, others are powerful—and most are a bit of both. After all, the ways we mourn (and the ways we take and give comfort) differ for everyone. With that in mind, some of these designers make powerful arguments for change. Check them out below.
"By trying to preserve dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living, and further harm the environment," says MIT research fellow and artist, Jae Rhim Lee, the designer behind the so-called Mushroom Death Suit. The idea is simple: certain strains of mushrooms are actually able to remediate toxins. Knowing that the average body is host to 219 different chemicals—all of which seep into the soil when we decompose—Jae Rhim's proposal would use "death suit" covered in the mushrooms to prevent the spread of toxins into the soil.
Three French designers proposed this eco-casket, made from biodegradable plastics and embedded with a tree seedling, as an alternative to a traditional steel, wood, or plastic box. The beautiful thing about their design? Co2 emitted from your body's decomposition will power a perpetually-glowing headstone on the surface. It's a self-powered memorial.
Hungarian designer Agnes Hegedus created this elegant little urn for a style of burial that was once more popular: the water-based cremation. Except in this case, the body isn't cremated on the water. Rather, an urn containing your ashes floats out to sea aboard a clay pot, which is designed to sink slowly down to the ocean floor. The pots would cost only a few dollars to make.
The increasingly common practice of "cloud seeding," which alters the intensity of natural rainfall by literally "seeding" it with particular chemicals, serves as the basis for this idea from two UK design teams. "Humans now have the ability affect, control and even cause natural phenomena, whether it is rain, an earthquake or a flood," write the designers. "We wonder if a person could do this not just by their actions, but literally transform themselves into types of natural spectacle." The concept would use a weather balloon to carry your ashes into the sky—releasing them high above the earth, to be "rained" back down in millions of droplets of water. Though it's probably deeply illegal, it's still a lovely idea.
"Multifunctional land is not a non-renewable resource," argues Ancunel Steyn, the South African designer behind this proposal. "The question is, how can we reduce space required to store the dead?" Steyn proposed an urban design that would intersperse memorials with public infrastructure: from parks, to art galleries, to mixed-used commercial buildings. The memorials themselves would take up a very small, tissue box-sized space, stacked on a series of walls arranged around the site.
Two Lithuanian designers created this hexagonal design for an urn-storage system. The idea, as the title suggests, is to create a literal family tree of urns. There's also a digital element, which could come off as smart or tacky, depending on how you feel about SMS-based memorials: "The urn vault is made of wood, with an OLED display cap," explain the duo. "The display emits a serene, pulsing light that conveys spirituality and displays the name of the deceased with a short memorial message."
This simple design, by French artist Chen Jiashan, is half windchime and half urn. "Why should we keep the deceased ones away from our eyes?," asks Jiashan. "The souvenair, small in size but clearly visible, can be hanged at home or in a public place. Its tiny and appeasing 'ding' recalls the presence of the loved one whenever some wind blows."