8 Projects That Reenvision the Traditional Cemetery

iStock
iStock

Globally, nearly 57 million people died in 2016. If you happen to be a cemetery caretaker, you might be wondering where we managed to put them all. Indeed, many cemeteries in the world’s major cities are filling up fast, with no choice left but to tear up walkways, trees, and green spaces just to make room for more graves.

In response to these concerns, a variety of visionaries have attempted to reimagine the modern cemetery. These plans tend to fall into one of two camps: Biologists and environmentalists have brainstormed alternate methods for disposing of bodies, some of which are said to be better for the planet than the traditional methods of burial and cremation. Meanwhile, architects have looked at ways of adapting the burial space itself, whether that means altering a traditional cemetery or creating something new and more ephemeral. Here are just a few of the creative ideas that have emerged in recent years.

1. VERTICAL CEMETERIES

As cemeteries started running out of ground to dig, it was only a matter of time before they started building up. There's been a lot of talk about skyscraper cemeteries in recent years, although the idea dates back to at least 1829, when British architect Thomas Willson proposed a 94-story mausoleum in London.

"The vertical cemetery, with its open front, will become a significant part of the city and a daily reminder of death’s existence," says Martin McSherry, whose design for an open-air skyscraper cemetery with layers of park-like burial grounds was one of the proposals presented at the Oslo Conference for Nordic Cemeteries and Graveyards in 2013. Another recent plan by architecture students in Sweden suggested repurposing a cluster of silos into a vertical columbarium (a place to store urns). Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica was one of the first places to implement this vertical concept back in 1984, and at 32 stories high, it currently holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest cemetery.

2. REUSABLE GRAVES

For much of human history, graves were often reused, or common graves were dug deep enough to accommodate multiple bodies stacked one on top of the other. “Our current cemetery design is actually a pretty new thing,” Allison Meier, a New York City cemetery tour guide (and Mental Floss writer), tells us. “It wasn’t normal for everyone to get a headstone in the past and we didn’t have these big sprawling green spaces.”

Now that many urban cemeteries are filling up, the idea of reusing plots is once again gaining popularity. In London, it’s estimated that only one-third of the city’s boroughs will have burial space by 2031. In response, the City of London Cemetery—one of the biggest cemeteries in Britain—has started reusing certain grave plots (the practice is legal in the city, even though grave reuse is outlawed elsewhere in England).

Across continental Europe, however, it's not uncommon for graves to be "rented" rather than bought for all eternity. In countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Greece, families can hold a plot for their loved one as long as they continue to pay a rental fee. If they stop paying, the grave may be reused, with the previous remains either buried deeper or relocated to a common grave.

Meier says she isn’t aware of any cemeteries in New York City that have started reusing their plots, though. “That’s a tough thing for Americans to get on board with because it’s been a normal practice in a lot of places, but it’s never been normal here,” she says.

3. A FLOATING COLUMBARIUM

A rendering of a floating columbarium
BREAD Studio

Ninety percent of bodies in Hong Kong are cremated, according to CNN, and niches in the city's public columbaria are at a premium. The average wait for a space is about four years, sparking concerns that Hong Kongers could be forced to move their loved ones' ashes across the border to mainland China, where more space is available. (A space at a private columbarium in Hong Kong can be prohibitively expensive, at a cost of about $128,000.) To address this issue, a proposal emerged in 2012 to convert a cruise ship into a floating columbarium dubbed the “Floating Eternity.” Designed by Hong Kong and London-based architecture firm BREAD Studio, the columbarium would be able to accommodate the ashes of 370,000 people. Although it's still just an idea, BREAD Studio designer Benny Lee tells CNN, "A floating cemetery is the next natural step in Hong Kong's history of graveyards."

4. UNDERWATER MEMORIALS

An underwater lion sculpture and other memorials
Neptune Reef

Land may be limited, but the sea is vast—and several companies want to take the cemetery concept underwater. At Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida, human ashes are mixed with cement to create unique memorials in the shape of seashells and other objects of the client's choice. The memorials are then taken by divers to the ocean floor and incorporated into a human-made reef designed to look like the Lost City of Atlantis. Eternal Reefs, based out of Sarasota, Florida, offers a similar service.

5. SPACE MEMORIALS

Not a water person? Try space instead. Elysium Space, a San Francisco-based company founded by a former software engineer at NASA, offers a couple of “celestial services.” At a cost of nearly $2500, the Shooting Star Memorial “delivers a symbolic portion of your loved one’s remains to Earth’s orbit, only to end this celestial journey as a shooting star,” while the Lunar Memorial will deliver a "symbolic portion" of human remains to the surface of the moon for a fee of nearly $10,000. Another company, Celestis, offers similar services ranging in price from $1300 to $12,500.

6. HUMAN COMPOSTING

Shoveling soil
iStock

Critics of burial and cremation say both are bad for the environment. To address the need for a memorial method that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, waste resources, or release carcinogenic embalming fluid into the soil, a number of eco-friendly options have emerged. One such innovation is the “mushroom burial suit," a head-to-toe outfit that's lined with mushroom spores designed to devour human tissue and absorb the body's toxins. Another company, Recompose, espouses human composting—a process by which a corpse would be converted into a cubic yard of soil, which could then be used to nurture new life in a garden. The procedure isn’t legal yet, but the company plans to work with the Washington State legislature to make it available to the general public before eventually rolling it out nationwide.

7. DEATH AS ART

Many innovative proposals have emerged from the DeathLAB at Columbia University, including a plan to convert human biomass (organic matter) into light. The design—a constellation of light that would serve as both a memorial and art installation—won a competition hosted by Future Cemetery, a collaboration between the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society and media company Calling the Shots. John Troyer, director of the UK-based center, says they're working on raising funds to install a concept piece based on that design at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, but any usage of actual biomass would have to be cleared through the proper regulatory channels first. According to DeathLAB, the project would save significant space—within six years, it would more than double the capacity of the cemetery orchard where the memorials would be installed.

8. VIRTUAL CEMETERIES

As virtual reality technology gets more and more advanced, some question whether a physical cemetery is needed at all. The website iVeneration.com, founded by a Hong Kong entrepreneur, lets users "create virtual headstones anywhere in an augmented reality landscape of Hong Kong, including such unlikely places as a downtown park," as Reuters describes it. In Japan, one online cemetery allows the bereaved to “light” incense, share memories of their loved one in comments, and even grab a virtual glass of beer. Similarly, an app called RiPCemetery created a social network where users can craft a virtual memorial and share photos of the deceased.

However, Troyer says he doesn’t believe technology will ever usurp the need for physical spaces. “A lot of the companies talking about digital solutions talk about ‘forever’—and that’s very complicated with the internet, because the virtual material we create can easily disappear," he told the The Guardian. "The lowly gravestone has been a very successful human technology, and I suspect it will last … I would go with granite.”

11 Great Gifts for Retro Gaming Fans

No Starch Press/Amazon
No Starch Press/Amazon

Video games are more realistic, expansive, and ambitious than ever, but there’s one thing that most modern titles can’t offer: a hit of nostalgia. If you’re shopping for the retro gaming enthusiast in your life, check out these 11 gift suggestions that promise to level up their holiday season.

1. Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp; $30

The Pac-Man Ghost Light Table Lamp is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Liven up a stagnant work area or nightstand with this cool LED lamp in the likeness of Pac-Man’s ghost nemesis. It can flash in a variety of different colors, and at a compact 8 inches tall, you can buy more than one to haunt your living space.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Street Fighter II Home Arcade; $245

Street Fighter II Arcade Cabinet.
ARCADE1UP/Amazon

Relive the sweaty palms and raw fingertips of your youth with this Street Fighter II arcade cabinet from Arcade1Up. The entire package is true to its classic arcade roots, with era-appropriate artwork adorning the outside and buttons and joysticks that look like they were transported right out of a '90s Pizza Hut. But this cabinet comes with a bonus: Instead of just getting Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, it also plays Street Fighter ll: The New Challengers and Street Fighter ll Turbo. If you're not in the mood for competitive play, the company also offers a retro Star Wars arcade cabinet, featuring games based on A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Buy It: Amazon

3. Level One Donkey Kong T-Shirt; $41

A Level One 'Donkey Kong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Show off your love of arcade gaming with this cool design that depicts Mario’s earliest challenge: navigating the barrel-tossing rage of a giant ape.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

4. Playstation Coasters; $12

A set of four Playstation coasters is pictured
Paladone/Amazon

Keep beverage stains off your gaming-adjacent furniture with this set of four coasters depicting classic Playstation controller buttons.

Buy It: Amazon

5. SEGA Genesis Mini-Console: $79

Sega Mini Classic System.
Sega/Amazon

Flash back to the Genesis era with this retro console that features over 40 games from SEGA’s heyday, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, and Virtua Fighter. The system also features a port of the arcade version of Tetris, which never actually made its way to the original Genesis.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks; $11

Sock It to Me Retro Gaming Socks are pictured
Sock It To Me/Amazon

Keep it professional in a suit but game on underneath with these dress socks featuring iconic game controllers from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony.

Buy It: Amazon

7. The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox; $19


No Starch Press/Amazon

Take in a photographic history of gaming consoles, from the vintage devices of the ‘70s like the Magnavox Odyssey on through Nintendo’s reign and the emergence of Sony and Microsoft. In all, 86 consoles are on display, ending with the era of the PS4 and Wii U.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nintendo Super Mario Bowser Vs. Mario 3-Pack Diorama; $26

A Nintendo Super Mario and Bowser diorama is pictured
World of Nintendo/Amazon

Let other people display fine art. You can show off this diorama depicting the biggest rivalry in retro gaming between Mario and Bowser. You'll also get a Bob-Omb figurine, just in case you want to recreate one of the duo's video game battles.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Playstation Wallet; $25

A Playstation wallet is pictured
SONY PlayStation/Amazon

Keep your cards and cash in one place with this Playstation-shaped wallet. There's even a button-snap opening in the shape of the system's disc tray.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Pong Shirt; $38

A 'Pong' T-shirt is pictured
80sTees.com

Go so retro that Millennials won’t even know what you’re referencing with this nod to the popular game Pong.

Buy It: 80sTees.com

11. The Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater; $39

Legend of Zelda Ugly Christmas Sweater
Nintendo/Amazon

It may call itself ugly, but those pixelated images of Link from Legend of Zelda are nothing but gorgeous to retro gamers. There's also a Mario version, if the portly Italian plumber is more your style.

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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