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‘In deciding future strategies to accommodate the dead, communities are adapting ancient traditions’

Bodycountindex

The sheer volume of dead requires improved death infrastructure without the loss of physical space to mourn

The dead outnumber the living. Their massive volume is one of the most pervasive yet overlooked issues facing our increasingly urbanised world. 

In the future, pressure on space may mean that so much importance can no longer be attached to the dead body. Indeed, definitions of death may become moot. The internet provides space in which the dead can continue to have active afterlives. Facebook pages can be programmed before death to upload new information and generate ‘new’ dialogue with the living. The necrogeographies of cyberspace also include virtual cemeteries which people might visit and where messages can be left at individual ‘grave sites’. The World Wide Cemetery is fully searchable by name, and on visiting a memorial it’s possible to pay $9 and leave a photograph of flowers. 

But the dead will probably still require a physical place in the cities of the future. The ways in which society deals with the dead are evidence of its emotional intelligence. The spaces of death are nodal points that allow us to express love and to secure consolation in the face of mortality. 

For over a thousand years, formal religions have sold sacred space in and around churches and close to the burial sites of prophets. In Christian denominations, burial as close as possible to the altar kept the deceased in the mind and prayers of the living. The Wadi-Al-Salaam Cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, is close to the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

‘Vertical cemeteries are now a feature of the world’s largest cities – often privately owned and combine facilities for different faiths and preferences’

In countries with a hot climate, burial often takes place in above-ground catacombs or niches, generally constructed in rows with one niche directly above and adjacent to another, accessible via movable stepladders. After a time, bones are disinterred and a secondary burial takes place in a family or communal ossuary. Over time, architectural responses to ‘niche’ or loculi burial have reflected trends in domestic building, incorporating Modernist designs and building materials. New architectural forms are exploring the pragmatics of how to increase density further while still accommodating ritual functions. Vertical cemeteries are now a feature of the world’s largest cities – including the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, the Panteón Memorial Towers Complex, Bogotá, and the Tainan Cemetery in Taiwan. These sites are often privately owned and combine facilities for different faiths and preferences. 

Yet cemeteries cannot expand indefinitely and finding space in expanding cities remains problematic. Cremation is a growing solution; the rate in the UK is now over 70 per cent. Although cremation rates are climbing rapidly in the US, contemporary cremation tends to be a functional act rather than a ritual process, and takes place ‘off-site’ in industrial settings. Other countries adopting cremation in larger numbers also overlook the need to create settings that offer consolation to the bereaved. Instead, remains are more often taken away from crematoria, for private disposal. Many countries have regulations that prescribe the methods of disposal, but porous European boundaries have led to cremation tourism. This free movement coupled with the portability of ashes is creating new spaces for the dead in unlikely places. In Switzerland it has been reported that Lake Constance is becoming a ‘lake of the dead’ due to the scattering of remains on the waters by German tourists. Many major European football stadiums now have spaces in which ashes can be scattered or interred, to the satisfaction of more ardent fans.

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In the world of the dead, as in the world of the living, space and permanence are commodities readily available to those with money to spend. Cemeteries have long been full of grandiose acts of self-publicity: grave ‘bling’ is – literally – the ultimate statement of financial worth. In the UK, the Victorians were closely wedded to the notion of ‘perpetuity burial’, and this idea travelled out to the US and to Australia. Cemeteries that offered outright ownership or leasing of a burial plot gave the growing middle class the opportunity for self-expression. In Italy particularly, funerary sculpture became a branch of the arts, demonstrating the complex nature of grief and loss. 

With the squeeze on space, the ritual of the funeral is becoming as bespoke as a wedding, and event planners are branching out. In many countries, funerals happen over days or even weeks, and it may be that we see an extension to the ritual timetable elsewhere. Coffins are available with every possible style of decoration, from football strips to favoured tattoo designs, made from materials including wicker and wool. In many Westernised countries, there’s an increasing preference for ‘authenticity’ in funeral practices. The notion of ‘do-it-yourself’ funerals aims to reclaim death rituals from cookie-cutter professionals encouraging excessive expenditure. Markets respond and adapt, and ‘authenticity’ here is as much a brand as a given approach.

‘Promession – a technique developed in Sweden – uses liquid nitrogen to freeze-dry the body and shake the crystalline remains to powder’

An increase in the volume of the dead always provokes change in funerary practice and innovation. In the 18th century, in mainland Europe, the Enlightenment brought scientific cemetery management, and a presumption that graves would be leased for a short term rather than purchased. In the 1990s in the UK, green burial emerged as a protest against ‘eco-unfriendly’ modern funeral practices including use of embalming fluid and highly polished coffins made from woodchip and lined with plastic. However, it is probable that the success of green burial lies in its overtly artisanal nature. Small farmers, seeking an additional income stream, generally offer a style of service reminiscent of an older time: just one funeral a day, and taking all day, in locations where the fact of other burials scarcely features in the landscape. The bereaved are assured of eternal protection for their loved one, in a site likely to become – in years to come – untouchable woodland.

New technologies for the disposal of the dead have been garnering attention. In many instances these are chemical replacements for the action of cremation, and indeed often borrow the terminology. ‘Resomation’ is one branded term for the use of an alkaline solution to reduce bodies to ash. Promession – a technique developed in Sweden – uses liquid nitrogen to freeze-dry the body and shake the crystalline remains to powder. Other processes aim to ‘repackage’ the dead body as so much composting matter. None of these new technologies is seeking an apt architectural frame. They will likely simply be processes added to existing facilities. But perhaps the question of architectural expression could provoke a conversation about acceptable rhetoric and ritual for these new techniques. The science of disposal does not always address the emotion of loss. 

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In the UK, the Sikh community has called for the introduction of open-air cremation. The need suggests the development of a new architectural form combining ‘openness’ with meeting legal definitions of a ‘building’ as required by cremation law, alongside a system of filtration: open-air cremation is not currently illegal as a process of dealing with the dead, but is likely to fall foul of environmental legislation. Architecture has yet to find an elegant solution for the cremation ‘chimney’. The conflict between religious requirements and environmental sustainability will become a key planning issue in considering future burial and cremation policy.

What many technical solutions fail to take into account is the need for a system that can not only deal with the emotional and ritual significance of disposing of a dead body, but also deliver that system at scale. The Moksha Tower, planned for Mumbai, aims to accommodate garden burial, cremation ashes, river disposal and the Zoroastrian practice of open-air exposure. However, to encompass the scale of operation, the cemetery will offer a ‘tenure’ of five years for any deposited remains – a term many might find unconscionably short. 

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Gettyimages 51506250

This is particularly tricky in the UK, where high-density burial looks a little too much like burial ‘on the parish’, where bodies were massed together with scant thought for identity and minimal opportunity to express grief. It is notable that the number of people seeking the formal burial of cremated remains is increasing: people want a grave to visit, and they want the body to be in that location. Communal memorials may be comforting in instances of disaster or emergency, but in the UK, the ideal burial form is an individual grave in a garden. We have always derived consolation for grief in the green stillness of trees, flowers and birdsong. ‘Gardening’ the portion of an allotted grave space is one way many people continue a conversation with their loved one. High-density built architectural forms are perhaps less viable than solutions found in new landscapes. Cemeteries made up of family ‘burial gardens’ might be one solution, where the reuse of graves within each garden is allowable for family members, and use of a plot might continue for generations. 

There can be no presumption of a global death culture. Responses to the fact of mortality are coloured by religion, by less formal spiritual beliefs and by superstition. Societies collectively decide what is legal, feasible economically, and sustainable in planning terms. In deciding current and future strategies to accommodate the dead, each community – from village to megacity – is building on and adapting its own ancient traditions and practices. 

For all that, the bereaved often seek consolation privately, in their own domestic space: photographs on the mantelpiece, a favourite piece of music, and quirky family sayings all permit the dead a continued foothold in the world of the living.