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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Constellation Park, at the Manhattan Bridge (Rendering). / DeathLab + Latent Productions

Another form of organic disposition that DeathLab has researched is alkaline hydrolysis, or “flameless cremation.” In this method, the body is exposed to a lye solution that, with the help of a low-energy pressurized chamber heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, breaks down the body into a small remainder of mineral ash and disposable fluid. DeathLab describes the latter byproduct as a “greenish-brown liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts,” but opponents of alkaline hydrolysis (of which there are many) prefer a terser label: sludge.

Religious institutions including the Catholic Church have declared the disposal method of the liquid via public sewer systems “undignified” for both body and spirit, all but insinuating that alkaline hydrolysis is akin to pouring Grandma down the drain. In 2008, a push to bring alkaline hydrolysis to New York was defeated by legislators who branded the initiative “the Hannibal Lecter bill,” after the infamous fictional serial killer. Today, the process is legal for commercial use in only seven US states. It’s clear that if DeathLab is going to incorporate accelerated decomposition in its urban designs, it’s going to have to develop it itself.

To that end, DeathLab is collaborating with Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia and the winner of a 2015 MacArthur “genius grant” for his work recovering wastewater for use as a resource (see “Liquid Assets” in the Fall 2015 issue of Columbia Magazine). It was Chandran’s lab work on biological fermentation and decomposition that caught Rothstein’s eye in 2011. Recently, Rothstein and Chandran secured a $27,500 grant from the Earth Institute that will enable the development of anaerobic microbial digestion: microorganisms that can consume bodies without the need for oxygen. This method will reduce the corpse to a smaller amount of material. But more strikingly, it will produce energy that can be harnessed to generate light.

Which brings us to DeathLab’s grandest vision, Constellation Park, where your loved ones would twinkle along a bridge in the Manhattan skyline. Constellation Park is one of DeathLab’s preferred memorial designs because it satisfies its most cherished ideals. The urban memorial is local and accessible (extravagantly so, since you could see your deceased loved one from miles away). It’s suspended from a bridge, so it has no footprint. It’s integrated into the city’s preexisting infrastructure, and it’s not cloistered — platforms and walkways below the bridge will allow people to visit and leave flowers by the vessels. Constellation Park is renewable, too, because the bodies will naturally decompose through microbial digestion, after which a small amount of remains can be retrieved by the family, opening the vessel up for a new body.

"People are so moved by the possibility that the corpse of a loved one could create light."

Perhaps most importantly, DeathLab believes that Constellation Park will provide spiritual consolation. Rothstein understands that memorials must offer solace above all else, and that’s why she brought in Christina Staudt ’01GSAS, a grief counselor and the chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Death, which hosts monthly discussions about the role of death in our society. Mark Taylor, a professor in Columbia’s Department of Religion, is also a part of DeathLab, consulting on the role of spirituality during death and mourning.

Communal solace is the primary goal for Constellation Park, where the glowing light emitted from each vessel would wax and wane before peacefully extinguishing after a year — though DeathLab also seeks to calibrate the duration of decomposition to support the needs of the bereaved.

“People are so moved by the possibility that the corpse of a loved one could create light,” Rothstein says. “We don’t talk about death; we don’t think about it. But to feel like your grief would be part of a larger community, and this person whose life is being honored remains part of this enduring constellation — it’s something people respond to really positively.”

Despite initially supportive reviews of the concept of Constellation Park, Rothstein knows that it will take a larger shift in cultural attitude for her project to gain widespread acceptance. Death is a touchy subject in American culture — the dead are supposed to be in our outlying cemeteries, not smack-dab in an iconic skyline.

But Rothstein isn’t asking the culture to uproot existing mores. Our traditional burial system “is, for most people, incredibly comforting and desirable,” she admits. “Our intent is not to deny that. It’s really to show that there could be other alternatives.”

These alternatives may be more in line with our values than we first thought — and available sooner than we’d expect. Rothstein says that DeathLab hopes to gain public and municipal support to develop a prototype of the illuminated vessels in an urban park — an ideal way of getting the public comfortable with the much larger idea of Constellation Park. To further educate the public, DeathLab will also host a “Life and Death” colloquium at Columbia on April 1.

In the meantime, Rothstein and DeathLab will continue to refine a new method of anaerobic microbial digestion, with a focus on creating an organic material that mimics the mortuary processes of the body — a technique that would allow them to test human decomposition without the human. They’ll work on the science and design, and Rothstein, through her teaching, will continue to influence cultural views. She’s optimistic about a society that she sees as increasingly conscientious about the welfare of the world even after we’re gone.

“I think the choices we make about our dead,” Rothstein says, “reflect the character of the living.”

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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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