If there is anything that we’ve learned from the past, its that there are a myriad of options for dealing with the deceased. The way the deceased are buried or disposed is reflective of the social, cultural, political, and religious views of the living. What one group may consider an appropriate and honorable form of burial, may be an abhorrent act of desecration to another. We as a Western civilization don’t engage with death as much as they did in the past- so we may not recognize the way that our choices for burial are highly structured by our associations, status and beliefs in life. The cemetery format we have become so used to- this Victorian park like memorial ground with static grave markers and upright tombs for walls with cremation burials- may be changing. As we search for new ways to deal with the increasing amounts of the dead, new technology, and restraints on space, there are new possibilities for burial grounds that are being introduced. As we look at these possibilities, consider in your mind if this would be appropriate for you, and how your cultural background may affect your decision to maintain traditional burial practices or try out something different.
Space is a major issue in many countries, and cemeteries take up large amounts of land. In Israel, a new structure has been constructed to deal with these issues: the skyward cemetery. It looks like a large post-modern business, with tiered flights leading from the ground to the top, but instead of housing offices, the floors house the deceased. Each flight is designed to hold soil and plants that will be used to create the burial ground. Tiered floors allow people to reach the different leve
ls, and the structure is open air like a parking garage, allowing grass and plants to survive, adding to the more traditional cemetery feel. Currently, in Brazil and Japan, there are vertical crypts where the deceased are buried in stacked tombs. These unique structures are helping the countries deal with the space issues faced by modern cities. What is unique about the skyward cemetery in Israel, is that it maintains the feeling of burial in the earth and park like surroundings. It is less of a departure from contemporary cemeteries.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that people have thought of using vertical space to deal with the dead in packed cities. During the Roman Empire, columbaria were used to stack the cremated remains of the deceased in tightly packed space. Each was given a small dovecot for their remains, which they reversed and paid for prior to death. An ancient funerary tradition found in China, Indonesia and the Philippines involves hanging coffins on cliff-sides, supporting the weight with beams projecting from the mountain face. In Ancient Egypt, the Valley of the Kings dealt with high numbers of elite burials by having them up and down the walls of the valley. It seems like we will be seeing more of this type of burial as well. There are plans in Paris, Mumbai, Mexico and China for similar types of high-rise cemeteries, but only the skyward cemetery in Israel has been backed by the government and has found unique ways to deal with religious scriptures regarding burial while saving space.
(Source: Associated Press)
While stacking cemeteries is one way to deal with increasing bodies and decreasing space, another option is to get rid of the body completely through natural decomposition. As we’ve discussed before, new processes like promession and green burial, are allowing for bodies to be buried in a sacred location, but leave less of a mark on the landscape. A fantastic project leading the way in this trend is the Urban Death Project. The goal of the project is to provide a way that people living in urban settings can have a green burial without taking up the space (green burial involves placing an unembalmed body in the ground, allowing it to decompose naturally). The Urban Death Project uses facilities that will speed the process of decomposition of the remains to about a month. Mourners are allowed to help with the initial laying down process and can take some of the composted remains. The rest of the compost is used within the facility itself and in city parks. Poetically, they describe this as a process where the deceased is “folded back into the fabric of the city”.
While the actual decomposition process in the Urban Death Project is unique, the sentiment behind the burial and the goal of returning the body to the earth has been popular in many cultures, past and present. The Tibetan Sky Burial has similar connotations, with the remains of the dead being fed to birds so that the body is returned to the living world. In some ways, the use of human remains for science has a similar perspective of the Urban Death Project, where the deceased gives their remains over to medicine, forensics, or other disciplines for the benefit of the broader population, much in the way that composted remains is given back to the earth. One major theory about cremation in Prehistoric Europe, is that it may have been used as a way to divide up the remains of individuals so that they could be incorporated into monuments, given to their living relatives, and shared as a sacred token of the ancestors. This sentiment of being divided up to benefit the living seems to be quite common in the past, so it is nice to see this coming back with the Urban Death Project.
(Source: Urban Death Project)
High Tech Burials
The newest generation of high school students have never known a world without the internet. These digital natives expect a world where they can get access to anything online, learn and develop themselves in digital environments, and will spend large amounts of their life in an online world. Is it any surprise then that there is a desire to have digitally augmented cemeteries? Interactive tombstones are becoming more common throughout the USA, and are allowing people a way to interact with the deceased. These grave markers may have QR codes embedded in them, allowing data to be accessed about the deceased through one’s phone. The company Living Headstone will help you create a website about the deceased that can be accessed through the QR code on their headstone. Another option is the Future Cemetery, which has used projections, audio and tablets to create an interactive cemetery space. By doing this they have created an active location for engaging with the deceased in a range of ways. There current project is focusing on a historic cemetery, but I could easily see technology like this being used to augment modern cemeteries as people look for new ways to memorialize the deceased through technology.
What do you think is the future of burials? Which option would you take?