What happens when you die? Well, in a literal way, what happens to everyone else. You’re likely to have a traditional, costly, funeral, and then a small slot of land in a quiet sprawl of cemetery will be yours.
Yet this traditional way of death is arguably both a waste of land and money, and perhaps worse, practically begs for a person to be forgotten among the waves of tombstones that become less and less visited as the years tick by from that final date on the headstone. The Design for Death competition organized by Designboom with the Lien Foundation, ACM Foundation, and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) is aimed at rethinking this. An exhibition of the winners from the first phase of Design for Death, which examined new ways of deathcare and actual funerary practices, was held last week at the NFDA convention in Austin, Texas, and the winners of the second phase were just announced.
This second phase was focused on the architecture of death, meaning the physical places of remembrance. All the listed submissions are viewable on Designboom along with short narratives from the designers, with the overarching theme of the winners being a visibility for cemeteries and memorial spaces, as well as a way to interact with the dead.
The overall winner in the competition is Post Community by Marta Piaseczynska + Rangel Karaivanov of Austria, where a massive cube is designed to be installed right in the middle of a city on a prominent building, so you can see it from all angles, a sort of beacon of a memento mori. Yet besides looking futuristic, it also has what seems like an unsettling feature. When you enter the framework that holds the urns, you can call out a person’s name, or any name that would associate people together, and the urns will come forward like resurrected spirits. Or as the designers wrote:
“The way up is long… the only sound you can here is the whistling of the urns that move smoothly inside the frame, the humming of far distant city life three-hundred feet below. You hear a man calling a name, not the name of a person but of a company. Twenty-seven urns start to move towards him and organize so that they are all next to each other. He places a stone in each one of them, waits a minute and leaves. The urns, as organized as they were before move back into the complex cloud of the cemetery. At the end of the ramp you finally reach the atrium space; a space with no ground. It is difficult to describe the space you are in as it is constantly changing the form, the light, the wind blowing through the gaps, the atmosphere. A small group of people are gathered; a person dressed in black places a new urn into the grid. Everyone walks to the urn, waits for a second or two and continues walking. After the last member of the group, the urn closes slowly and disappears into the cloud to join the community.”
In competing experiential design is My Favorite Place by Thomas Series of the United States, which got second place for the giant, golden egg-shaped monuments to hold remains that would be installed right in the center of everyday life, another move to bring death and memorial into the everyday. On its surface it would contain “an interactive network of lights, able to be digitally called by family and friends to emit a serene light indicating the interior location of the departed individual.”
Finally, in third place is the more subdued and elegant SKY LIGHT by Juan Isaza from Colombia, where pavilions mimicking a forest and a series of lakes are dotted with “family trees” and overhead constellations where long-lasting LED urns are held. It’s based on a Thailand lantern festival where you “make a wish and watch as your ‘Krathong’ or ‘khome’ floats away.”
The ideas, like all open-ended design challenges, can seem a bit outlandish, but there’s something interesting at each of their cores that harkens to this idea of creating a place of peace that is actually meaningful and draws you to return and notice it, not like many cemeteries now that are secreted at the edges of the city.
The other entries are also worth cruising through, some that sound like sci-fi settings like the R.I.P. Station by tl from China where a subway station would actually be an underground columbarium with its own train stop, or tackle an issue with current cemetery design like a place of remembrance by Michael Jantzen from the United States that removes the traditional anonymous tombstone and replaces it with the actual names of people emerging like movable type. There are also interesting uses of technology like You Only Live Thrice by R.M.N.Crosby of the United States, which incorporates a monitor of mentions of the deceased online, such as Google Alerts, into a light by the tombstone that illuminates whenever your name appears, although that seems woefully depressing for when the lights finally go dark. Yet in the end, if you are to be remembered, it’s not going to matter about the monument, but whatever name you’ve left behind to be recalled.
Click here to view all of the Design for Death architecture winning entries on Designboom.