Six Feet Under the City
Densification is a pressing issues for cities across the world, but it’s not only the living who face the burdens of high rent. Metropolitan burial plots are some of the costliest properties in the city. In 2015, New York Marble Cemetery sold the last two burial plots on the island for a whopping $350,000 each. No new cemeteries have been established in New York City for over 50 years and the rest are nearing capacity at exponential costs.
Enter: DeathLAB, the transdisciplinary R&D initiative housed in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Their work explores both ‘intimate and infrastructural urban concerns’ associated with death. Topics of research include alternative forms of human body composition, grievance practices in public space, urban death infrastructure, and the environmental impacts of funerary practices. DeathLAB studies approaches from across time and cultures, and believes that North American’s fallow relationship with death is harming our cultural and personal wellbeing. DeathLAB looks for opportunities to embrace the inevitable conclusion of life and believes that re-designing death in the city can lead to social and environmental resiliency.
Many cultures across the world see death as a motivation to make the most of life. Just as memorials like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe help visitors make sense of difficult histories and emotions, welcoming grievance in the public realm contributes to healthy public reconciliation.
Art is a powerful tool for making sense of difficult issues such as death. Murals, and installations that people can visit are a a great way for cities to support grievance and remembrance in the public realm. Tokyo’s high-tech Ruriden provides an example of how technology and art can be used as tools for mourning and remembrance. The immersive columbarium is home to over 2000 digitally lit alters that correspond to ashes of the deceased and creates a personalized and immersive experience when people pay tribute to their loved ones.
Across North America, people have been shining a light on how to approach death differently in recent years. Just as people deserve agency in how they choose to live, people should feel a sense of peace and control about the way they exit life as well. Recompose, a Washington-based company, is developing decomposition facilities to provide people with sustainable funerary options that convert human remains into soil.
Artist Briar Bates leads as an example with her inspiring last performance that takes life Beyond the Sea and uses death as a reminder to embrace art, community, and public life. While many urbanism initiatives are focused on making our cities more liveable, how can we expand this conversation to make our cities friendlier for the un-liveable as well?