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Meet the people transforming death into an eco-friendly energy system

You may have heard the old adage that land is a great investment, because it’s the only thing they aren’t making any more of. And with that in mind, it probably isn’t in everyone’s best interests to have spent the last 50,000 or so years putting our dearly departed in the ground. Like many of the habits we as a culture have developed, burial practices are beginning to be subjected to a fairly thorough rethink, and the results could be breathtaking.

A team of researchers known fairly bluntly as Deathlab, who are based at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, are at the forefront of such research. Their mission statement reads;

“Given rapidly depleting cemetery space, increasing urban populations, and the acute environmental toll of both burial and cremation, alternative funerary practices are inevitable, yet currently unresolved. Our cities require new mortuary options which respond to the constraints of ecology, time, and limited burial space.

At DeathLab we are designing new models of mortuary infrastructure which embrace biologically sensible human disposition alternatives, supporting innovative civic spatial constructions that are ecologically progressive, while expanding forms of intimate and social remembrance.”

Back in May, Hyperallergic reported on one such GSAPP-planned initiative, known as the Sylvan Constellation. The plan is to have bodies suspended on steel pylons above the ground, with the energy generated by decomposition used to power individual lights. The project was designed in residency at the Victorian era Arnos Vale cemetery site and the plans, rendered over the existing site, are hauntingly beautiful;

An imagined futuristic cemetery, designed by Deathlab in residence at Arnos Cemetery (courtesy of Deathlab)

An imagined futuristic cemetery, designed by Deathlab in residence at Arnos Cemetery (courtesy of Deathlab)

More recently, Atlas Obscura reported on a project designed by the same group along the same lines, but this time intended to be built in more recognisably urban surroundings — underneath the Manhattan Bridge where the decomposition energy would illuminate the civic area underneath.

To put the work into context, it has been suggested that an average of 144 bodies stack up in New York City every day. Using traditional burial practices would take up a lot of space in a city where land is at a premium.

Dealing with the practicalities of death is obviously one of the most difficult things we go through as a society, but thanks to innovations such as these, the future could well be a more thoughtful and ecological resting place.

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