The question of how to care for a body postmortem is a weighty one, perhaps even more people in cities, where prices are high and options are limited. As space shrinks, the problem grows, and one Columbia University team is working to develop solutions for New Yorkers, as well as the increasingly urban world at large.
DeathLab is a research and design group comprised of academics across disciplines (architects, scientists, theologians, etc.) who work together to develop practical solutions to the problem of where to put the dead in metropolitan areas. Traditional American methods like embalmment and burial or cremation are bad for the environment, and the former is problematic as cemetery space dwindles. So DeathLab is developing ideas like Constellation Park: a concept in which human remains are used to power lanterns that would hang from the Big Apple’s Manhattan Bridge.
If that sounds a little unbelievable, let’s backtrack. The idea at the heart of Constellation Park has to do with anaerobic digestion—a process in which microorganisms feed on a body in the absence of oxygen. As Columbia Magazine reports, this is helpful for pure disposal purposes, but also for its incredible byproduct: energy. Energy that can theoretically be used to generate light.
The biomass energy could power light pods that would be suspended from the bridge—a convenient way to incorporate the memorial sites into existing city infrastructure, with platforms and walkways to allow visitors. The remains will naturally decompose until they extinguish (or are retrieved by loved ones) and the pods would be replaced with new remains.
DeathLab director Karla Rothstein told Columbia Magazine: “People are so moved by the possibility that the corpse of a loved one could create light. 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.”
The idea is still far from becoming a reality, and the collaborative is currently at work trying to create an organic material to test it. They are also simultaneously delving into other methods of bodily disposal and memorial, like “Sylvan Constellation,” which fuses a sort of traditional cemetery space with the organic energy-powered lights concept.
For more on DeathLab and Constellation Park, check out the project’s website.
[h/t Columbia Magazine]