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A Future Where the Decomposing Dead Could Power Cemetery Lights

The "Sylvan Constellation" designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, imagining a cemetery illuminated by the dead (courtesy Death Lab)
The “Sylvan Constellation” designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, imagining a cemetery illuminated by the dead (courtesy Death Lab)

The dead are often visually absent from our cemeteries, buried below the ground with tombstones representing the invisible remains. A project from the Death Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University imagines a memorial space where the departed are suspended in vessels on steel pylons, the energy from their decomposing biomass powering individual lights. This “Sylvan Constellation” addresses urban space limitations, the desire for a more eco-friendly death, and also our digital afterlives, with each “lamp” containing an individual’s digital data alongside their remains.

The “Sylvan Constellation” was announced in March as the winner of the Future Cemetery design competition, aimed at considering new ideas for urban burial. Organized by the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath in England, the competition awards the GSAPP Death Lab a residency this summer to research a prototype at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery. The Victorian burial ground is visible in the Death Lab renderings, its overgrowth and old tombs untouched, the design hovering above the historic site.

The "Sylvan Constellation" designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, imagining a cemetery illuminated by the dead (courtesy Death Lab)
The “Sylvan Constellation” designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, imagining a cemetery illuminated by the dead (courtesy Death Lab)
"Constellation Park" rendered on the Manhattan Bridge, designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (courtesy Death Lab)
“Constellation Park” rendered on the Manhattan Bridge, designed by the Death Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (courtesy Death Lab) (click to enlarge)

Karla Rothstein, founder and director of Death Lab, stated their “proposal aims to secure civic space for the future metropolis, allowing one’s last impactful act to gracefully and responsibly celebrate the vitality of life.” Death Lab previously worked on a version called “Constellation Park,” with the glowing death vessels hanging from the Manhattan Bridge, a more radical vision of a cemetery that is also a civic space. While death in major urban hubs like New York City can feel quite separate, with cemeteries mostly relocated to the outer boroughs in the 19th century, they were once a much greater part of daily life. People had picnics at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and took the train to visit relatives on their weekends at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Now organizations like Death Lab and the Centre for Death and Society are thinking of how to make these places meaningful to the 21st century, and incorporate our digital lives.

Mona Lalwani covered a recent panel at SXSW on digital death for Endgadget, in which John Troyer of the Centre for Death and Society said “the digital tools we’ve developed over the last 20 years have significantly pushed those boundaries” of our connection to the deceased. According to Kristen V. Brown’s research at Fusion, by 2098, more people will be dead on Facebook than alive (assuming Facebook still exists, and with its current growth rates). While death has long been a part of the internet, where every created profile is as mortal as the person behind it, these digital extensions of our lives are multiplying, and may become as much a part of our posthumous planning as the rest of our estates.

"You Only live Thrice" by R. M. N. Crosby (via DesignBoom)
“You Only Live Thrice” by R. M. N. Crosby (via DesignBoom)

One of the submissions to the 2013 Design for Death competition organized by Designboom with the Lien Foundation, ACM Foundation, and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), was inspired by David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, in which he writes: “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” Called “You Only Live Thrice” by R.M.N.Crosby, it has a sequence of lights similar to the “Sylvan Constellation,” with LED illumination controlled by mentions of the deceased’s name online.

This digital side to death, though, is not the central idea of the “Sylvan Cemetery,” which is more about visualizing and utilizing the energy of decomposition, our IRL death if you will. In this way it’s in line with current initiatives like the Urban Death Project envisioned by architect Katrina Spade, in which bodies are transformed into soil through facilities in urban areas, organic material which could support community gardens or other green spaces. Green burial is still the ultimate way to avoid the polluting chemicals of embalming or the emissions of cremation, yet it’s rare in cities. Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project recently proposed that the mass public grave off the coast of the Bronx could be a green burial site with GPS tracking interments. However, like all of these design projects, it’s still a conceptual idea. Still, as more people consider what our future cemeteries can be, and how they could incorporate new technology, there’s a chance to have a more earth-friendly death that still honors the memory of the deceased.

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