Death by Design
By Kirstin Butler
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. If you want to understand the life cycle in more specific molecular detail, though, you should look to a surprising disciplinary source. That’s because the most contemporary thinking on decomposition doesn’t come from religion or science; it comes from industrial design.
Perhaps it’s the passing of another year that has us thinking about the ultimate human passage. That’s right: today we’re all about death. More specifically, it’s about designerly approaches to death, and why this topic merits interest for reasons beyond aesthetic fetishism. The objects we’re considering today illustrate how design can imbue death with dignity, while also creating value for the people and earth that remain behind — not a bad legacy to leave.
Recipient of an honorable mention in I.D. magazine’s 2009 Annual Design Review, Spiritree is one option for those looking to leave the lightest footprint at the end of their lives. (As an aside, we were dismayed to learn that I.D. is itself meeting an untimely end because of the death of its publishing model. RIP, I.D.)
Spiritree is a futuristic-looking pod that transforms the traditional funerary urn into something that looks like the lovechild of Karim Rashid’s brain and a bird feeder. Spiritree’s website cites eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken as an inspiration, and we can see why. Designed by Arquitectura/Diseño in Puerto Rico, the Spiritree turns remains into fertile fodder for “a living memorial in the form of a tree.” Its pieces are intended to biodegrade as the seeds added to it germinate; and the pod’s ceramic upper half eventually cracks as the emerging plant grows strong enough to break it.
We don’t like to talk or think about what happens to our mortal coils when we shuffle them off, but, like all of our remains, they have to go somewhere.
And like much else we humans leave behind as a species, we haven’t been good at disposing of ourselves. Death is a resource-intensive business. By some estimates, 200 million pounds of steel are used each year to build caskets; many are also lined with copper or zinc. Embalming usually involves carcinogenic chemicals — not much of a concern for the recently departed, but definitely bad when they eventually leach into our groundwater. And many cemeteries encourage water waste and other landscaping evils.
Thankfully, intrepid industrial designers like Nadine Jarvis have been ruminating on the vessels via which we meet our earthly rest.
Jarvis’s thesis project at the University of London took the form of a series of alternative proposals for the post mortem. In Carbon Copies, Jarvis turned cremains into a lifetime supply of pencils — 240 to be exact — to be used by the deceased’s survivors. Rest in Pieces takes the form of a ceramic urn suspended from a tree; the cord from which it hangs deteriorates over a period of one to three years, at which point the urn drops and smashes, scattering its contents.
Jarvis’s Bird Feeders gesture at reincarnation, relying on birds’ ingestion of the ash and seeds that comprise the pieces. Her work engages the grieving process with elegance, enlarging through form the spaces in which we mourn. Pieces from Jarvis’s post-mortem research are in the collections of London’s Design Museum and Funeria, the founding agency behind the only (to our knowledge, anyway) biennial for funerary artwork, Ashes to Art.
Finally, for cradle-to-cradle coffins, look no further than the Ecopod. Made by hand from recycled paper products, Ecopod was designed by natural-birthing practitioner Hazel Selina. Selina created the product in response to a friend’s death and her research around the limitations of traditional casket and coffin design. Ecopods come in a variety of colors (including the gorgeous gold version above), and can be screen printed with various designs or lined with feathers. We weren’t surprised to learn that the UK-based Selina was fascinated by ancient Egyptian burial rituals, since the Ecopod looks like what we imagine a 21st-century Tutankhamun might choose for his own final rest.
We realize that since the world couldn’t even agree on carbon limits at Copenhagen, we’re unlikely to see mass reform around such a personal topic as death. Still, it’s at least worth considering how we might, in our final act, try to leave the earth better rather than worse for our wear. For more resources on green burials, visit the non-profit Green Burial Council.
Published January 7, 2010