The Good Old Days
INTERESTING STUFF – 29 October 2016

Deathpods and the Deathlab

For many years, decades if I'm honest, I've said I want to cremated when I die and have a friend distribute my ashes among two or three certain places in Manhattan. This is no longer a good idea.

In recent years, environmental concerns have militated against traditional cremation and as we have discussed here in the past, there is a growing number of new ideas for green burials that respect both the deceased and, particularly in avoiding embalming, the environment.

Nowadays, in many U.S. communities, you can be buried in a simple shroud, in a mushroom suit or in a pod from which a tree will grow - in which case you can even choose the type of tree. There are other choices too.

In addition to environmental concerns pushing new notions of burial, we are just plain running out of space to put dead people, not to mention how prohibitively expensive cemetery plots have become.

This week, Atlas Obscura published a fascinating story about some proposed innovations in burial.

”Imagine the Manhattan Bridge twinkling from underneath with hundreds of small pods filled with decaying biomass – the final resting place of many former New Yorkers, shining like stars in an otherwise dark sky.

“There, you might lay flowers near a pod containing the remains of a loved one, until decomposition finishes its course and all that remains is a container to keep as a remembrance.”

It's being called Constellation Park and the light results from “microbial digestion” of corpses in which microorganisms consume bodies without the need for oxygen, reducing them to light. Here is an illustration of how it might look:


This idea in the brainchild of the DeathLab, a trans-disciplinary research and design space at Columbia University. Here is a closer view of what the researchers have imagined for Constellation Park.


This project is nowhere near creation let alone conclusion. It hasn't even been presented to the city council. Even so, it is already

”...facing fierce opposition from the funeral industry,” reports A.M. Brune in Atlas Obscura.

“But like a lot of things in New York it might, eventually, come down to a numbers game: if built, Constellation Park, could accommodate around 10 percent of deaths in the city each year—a number that seems small until you start to think about the alternatives, which can be environmentally disastrous.”

And there is at least one precedent now. A similar idea is underway at the historic Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, where lights will be powered by decaying biomass. Take a look at a rendering:

Arnos Vale Cemetery

I would be more than pleased to give up my long-held dream of having my ashes scattered in Manhattan in exchange for powering a light on the Manhattan Bridge for awhile. As Karla Rothstein, who is an architecture professor at Columbia and director of the university's Deathlab, told Atlas Obscura:

“Socio-cultural needs and desires are not static. Honoring our dead is a basic human endeavor, and there are many valid practices, including new models, that can support this need.”

You can read the full story at Atlas Obscura. There is a lot more information there than I've passed on here.


Sounds like a script for a SyFy TV show! However, it is amazing how creative people are, but of course the funeral directors & their industry are against anything beyond them making lots of $ on death. Oh well. Who of us will remain to see this begin to catch on.........I know it won't be me! :) Dee


I live in the South (Alabama) and when I was young, literally no one here would even discuss cremation. But that is changing, and when my husband died, I had him cremated -- and still possess his ashes. Fortunately, one of my great-uncles donated land for a small cemetery in the rural area where my relatives lived on the condition descendants could be buried there free. I plan to be cremated and our ashes buried in a plot next to my grandparents. Visiting their big farm was one of my happiest times as a child, and I was especially close to my grandmother.

However, even when I was young, I realized space is going to one day prevent everyone being buried. Here it is part of the religious ritual; funerals are very expensive, but I've always had a personal revulsion to the idea of embalming.

When people say they need a "grave" to visit and mourn, I just don't get it. I don't have my husband's ashes displayed, and I have always felt the MEMORY of the person is the real legacy. Not ashes, not an embalmed body, etc.

At first I found that looking a lights powered by dead bodies very creepy, but what are we to do? Perhaps shooting us all into space will become affordable and we can just burn out like the stars.

What a clever idea. I'd love to be a ray of light for awhile longer.

Little twinkling lights. Gosh. After marveling at the creativeness of the originator, I wondered what the profit margin is in this, and who would benefit.

After arranging traditional funerals for family members over the years as requested, I decided to plan ahead and do mine the easy way.

Cremation, with ashes scattered at sea. (Why not feed the fishes for a change?)

So, it's bought and paid for and as far as I'm concerned, it can wait a while yet.

I find the lights thing kind of creepy. Not a place I'd want to visit, knowing every one of those lights was powered by a corpse. And I've never understood visiting graves (a waste of earth) or keeping ashes around (talk about creepy!). That person is gone; there's nothing to visit but a box in the ground or a vase on the shelf. I agree with Cara; it's the memories we keep and cherish. It's cremation for me, with my ashes scattered in the mountains and eventually back into space to be stardust once again.

The Seattle Times newspaper has an article today on efforts to design a process to compost human remains. A very compelling idea for an old gardener.

Thank you for this one, Ronni. In another month I will be 80 years old and have had to consider my alternatives for sometime now. At this point, I have decided for cremation and an urn that is a biodegradable planter and can be buried in the ground and will grow a tree. I found that an acceptable alternative to anything else available at this point ... and hope the oxygen created and given off into the air by my tree will offset any damage done by my cremation. My son has promised to plant it on my favorite hillside in my hometown in West Virginia where I used to go to hide among the trees by a small stream when I was a kid ... still my all time favorite place on this old earth!

My husband and I prearranged, and prepaid for, our cremation over 10 years ago, so it's too late to change now. To my knowledge choices friendly to the environment either weren't available then or they were not at all well publicized. I still haven't decided what is to be done with my ashes. I'd like to have them scattered at sea, but that may not be a workable plan for my survivors. I like Miki's alternative and probably would have chosen something similar, but that wasn't available when we made our decision.

Although I think the DeathLab concept is interesting and probably makes total sense on a practical level, it does seem a bit creepy to me, maybe because it involves entirely new thought processes about disposal of remains.

Our plans were made years ago and when our son died we had no idea what his plans were so we did the traditional and since that time our daughter requested cremation. Here you do not have to be embalmed to cremate. She wanted to be buried with her brother so she will be sub-letting the space.

The problem I see with all the urns around if you have no one to leave it to then what happens?

As for the lights, I prefer not to walk under rotting corpses. Doubt I'll be around any way. I'm 77 now. While I like the idea of planting trees whose to know if a developer will end up buying the land and bulldozing trees? :-)

Not clear to me what environmental problem is associated with cremation.

Although cremation is better for the environment than burial, by burning for an hour to an hour-and-a-half at very high temperatures, it releases a lot of greenhouse cases. In addition, heavy metals from the body are released, especially mercury from dental fillings. Depending on the materials they are made of, caskets also release toxic gases.

Some crematoria are updating their facilities in the U.S. to reduce dangerous emissions but it is not yet widespread.

I have already paid for cremation and I love the idea of the biodegradable urn in which a tree is planted in the ashes. But I'm not keen on planting it in my current back yard because I have no idea what kind of person will live in my house when I'm gone. And I don't want my tree to be peed on by various pets. But I have doubts about the legal implications of just picking a park or a woods or, in my case, a nature preserve bordering a river. Everything seems to be illegal or immoral or both in our brave new world and I don't want to envision a police raid on my well-meaning family as they bury my tree. Does anyone know if this practice is legal?

Question..hoping someone has answer or suggestions. The more I think about the tree idea, the more I like it. But how does one find cemetery or plot to do that? Cemetery where husband will be buried doesn't even allow a plant on grave. His 1st wife is buried there, there is room for 3.

Linda and others...
I don't have time to answer every individual question. I will be writing more in time. But you can google "green burials" and follow your nose. You'll find extensive information.

Linda -- some cemeteries that have the room are now creating natural areas for these "green" burials. Many years ago people who had private property and an interest in this, also began creating places for such burials.

A friend of mine who died three years ago was buried in a lovely natural area along the borders of an otherwise very pristine and elegant cemetery in the Chicago suburbs. It's a lightly forested area and family and friends are allowed to plant perennials or native plants or trees and mark the graves with stones or items that use more natural materials and blend subtly into the environment. It's actually difficult to even find some of the graves, although there is a printed guide available from the office. Visiting her gravesite is more like taking a nature hike.

As Ronni suggested, you can google green burials or call any reputable funeral home or association, or even a church in your area and you can probably get the information you need.

I know many who have been cremated. I recently read somewhere that scattering ashes is being outlawed? A coworker, who traveled extensively with her husband, would scatter her dad's ashes this way. A little here, a little there, she took him everywhere. I haven't made a decision yet about my remains. I also recently read (probably Atlas Obscura) that drones can spot dead bodies by the darker earth and more brilliant foliage around the body?

It is not that scattering ashes is "being outlawed; it IS outlawed or, actually, regulated in most circumstances. Except on private land, scattering ashes in the U.S. is subject to a variety of rules and regulations, all of them local except perhaps public federal lands which have their own regulations.

Even scattering ashes at sea has certain requirements.

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