Making Light of Death

At Columbia’s DeathLab, the search for a cleaner, smarter alternative to burial is a deeply serious matter.

by Eric Kester Published Spring 2016
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Picture six black coffins lined up in a row. They represent the six deaths per hour in New York City.

Now pan out in your mind’s eye to an aerial view of many more coffins, occupying nearly every inch of a major street intersection. That’s 144 coffins, New York’s deaths per day.

Keep pulling back until you recognize the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the grid soon filled by the ever-growing number of coffins planted in the ground per week, per month, per year.

DeathLab's Studio. / Photograph by Bryan Derballa

After a decade, we’re at a half million deaths. The burial plots required for these coffins is consuming all the street space in Brooklyn and spreading west through Lower Manhattan. The coffins are creeping relentlessly toward SoHo, where Karla Rothstein, seated in her office at the architecture firm Latent Productions, is determined to solve a problem that seems as unstoppable as death itself: where on earth are we going to put our urban dead?

Karla Rothstein in Avery Hall. / Photograph by Bryan DerballaRothstein ’92GSAPP is an architect and the director of DeathLab, a Columbia research collaborative of architects, scientists, and theologians that uses the coffin-multiplying image in a video meant to demonstrate the urgency of New York’s urban-dead problem. As a specialist in urban spaces, Rothstein, who is an associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, is thinking about what most of us would rather not: what becomes of our bodies when we die, and what impact that has on the living.

But even more eye-opening than the scope of the burial-space problem are DeathLab’s solutions.

Some of these are illustrated in meticulous renderings that are printed and stacked on Rothstein’s desk. If DeathLab’s designs bear out, the remains of New York’s dead may soon be suspended from the Manhattan Bridge in glowing pods — or, to put it in more scientific terms, in vessels illuminated by the organic energy latent in our loved ones’ biomass.

This vision — what the design team calls Constellation Park — is the culmination of years of urban-design research, scientific findings, and heartfelt sensitivity to the spiritual needs not only of mourners, but of society at large. At first pass the entire project may feel like a stretch. But take a deeper look into where America’s burial practices are now and where they’re headed, and soon you may see DeathLab’s proposal as an ingenious and welcome alternative.

“Once you start thinking about our burial system, the logistic imperative of space becomes kind of obvious, even though it’s something that’s not widely discussed,” says Rothstein. “All of the cemeteries in New York equal about five times the area of Central Park. It’s a vast territory. And it’s basically full.”

It was back in her graduate-school days that Rothstein became interested in the peripheral spaces of cities. These outer territories are where most societies build their cemeteries and their crematoriums. Rothstein realized that most cities — especially her own — have reached a tipping point: residents who have lived in Queens for eighty-five years are being laid to rest eighty-five miles away in New Jersey; low-income families in Brooklyn have to splurge on train tickets to pay respects to loved ones buried in plots so costly that they should come with a mortgage.

Constellation Park (Rendering). / DeathLab + Latent ProductionsIn response, Rothstein is devising plans for local memorial sites that can be woven into the fabric of everyday city life. The DeathLab researchers, all with their own areas of expertise and interests in the problems around burial, have gone on a global search for understanding. They’ve visited cemeteries in Beijing and Jordan, explored columbaria in Tokyo, and studied how bodies are interred in Rio. What they’ve found is that the United States is one of the last nations in the world that still favors embalmment and burial. They also found that the negative consequences of the American burial tradition run far deeper than a simple matter of space.

Embalmment is a preservation process that grants a small window in which the body assumes a peaceful image of natural rest. According to Rothstein, that’s about as natural as embalmment gets. She calls the procedure itself “invasive,” but that is putting it lightly. During embalmment, the body is drained of its blood and pumped full of formaldehyde, a highly toxic, malodorous carcinogen. The eyelids are glued shut. The mouth is wired closed, and every orifice gets plugged. The body is groomed for the funeral service, then often placed in a rubber-sealed casket that, while protecting the body from perceived underground evils (“like worms,” Rothstein supposes), causes it to unnaturally decompose into what Rothstein describes as a sort of “black goo.” The casket is lowered into the ground, where what unites with the earth isn’t the body but the toxic formaldehyde that eventually escapes even the most heavy-duty casket and seeps into the soil — if we’re lucky, away from our sources of groundwater.

So ecological concerns joined spatial efficiency on DeathLab’s list of priorities. And it’s these concerns that ruled out the most obvious solution to our space problem — cremation. In its research into the environmental impact of cremation, DeathLab found that the process, which requires a fire to burn at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two hours, is ecologically undesirable because of the required energy, the use of non-renewable fuels, and the sometimes toxic gases released to the atmosphere. Studies have demonstrated that the amount of energy used to cremate a single body equals the home-energy demands of a typical American over an entire month. The United Kingdom’s government-run Environment Agency found in 2005 that the burning of dental fillings during cremation was responsible for 16 percent of the nation’s mercury pollution.

Finding an environmentally sound, spatially efficient alternative for body disposal has been one of DeathLab’s top priorities, and perhaps its greatest challenge. Few such processes exist. One that DeathLab has considered is “promession,” in which the body is freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen, allowing it, as Rothstein says, “to be shattered to dust with a slight vibration.” It’s biologically based, so Rothstein likes it as a technique, though it remains largely conceptual: to her knowledge no commercial prometorium has yet been built.

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The comment that all NYC cemeteries are full, I believe is incorrect.

My family owns several plots in old and new Calvary, one dating back to the mid 1800's. It is a very large plot and there are plenty of empty spaces. My husband has tried to give them away as he is a descendant but has had no takers. We have several other burial places all with empty places but since this is deeded property and owners and deeds are no longer available, they sit.

Further, PERC tests are done, as I understand it in older cemeteries. If enough time has gone by to allow for a new burial, an addition can be made. The test is expensive and probably not worth it unless it is of great family value.

While I applaud the work of the Death Lab, I wish they had checked out more than just the numbers of dead and land space.

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