Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cradle to Grave: "

Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich write about the ongoing evolution of sustainable design at Inhabitat.

When it comes time to bury a loved one, our otherwise expansive worldview is often funneled down to the immediate and necessary. Thinking of the environmental impact of final arrangements is rarely a priority. But there are people out there, from product designers to funeral home owners, who are trying to make it a little easier to make an eco-conscious choice when the time comes.

It is generally thought that cremation is more environmentally responsible than traditional burial, since the latter uses all kinds of toxic substances to embalm the body, as well as in the manufacturing of the casket, which is often lined with heavy metals and finished with harsh resins. Additionally, gravesites are deep, concrete-lined vaults, the creation of which is not a low-impact endeavor. While vast cemetaries full of concrete and stone memorials do have a certain haunting beauty, there are alternative guises for a cemetary that do greater service to the land, and can be a more pleasant place for visitors to come memorialize the dead. The green burial movement began in the UK, where there are now numerous eco-cemeteries full of trees rather than headstones. In the US, land restoration projects such as Fernwood use natural burial as a means of restoring native species to large areas of land.

Some more high-tech alternatives have been springing up, as well, one of the most intriguing being Biopresence, another UK venture which creates 'living memorials' by literally implanting human DNA into a tree, thus allowing the 'essence' of that person to live on.

This is really an untapped area of opportunity for design and innovation. It will never disappear and it impacts every one of us. The challenge, more than anything, is in the fact that death is a taboo subject for many of us, or at the very least something to which we avoid devoting much thought. But these slowly emerging evolutions in the arena of death rites and burial are proving that there is a great deal of room for improvement, both for the individual and the earth.


Fernwood Cemetery has existed for over a century, though their natural burial offerings are fairly new. The Mill Valley, CA, establishment is a funeral home, crematory and cemetery with an underlying mission of completing a longterm land restoration project through eco-friendly burials. Each burial that takes place there provides an opportunity to remove invasive species and renew the landscape through the use of native plants, trees and flowers.

In contrast to a traditional burial, which uses toxic embalming fluids, caskets lined with heavy metals and harmful finishes, and invasive excavation of the land, a natural burial uses a biodegradable casket without embalming fluids or a concrete vault. Native trees and plants are grown above the burial site, and Fernwood uses GPS to digitally keep track of gravesites. They also offer a digital 'Lifestories' biography as a means of preserving memories of the deceased.


Back in July, we wrote about the Bios Urn, a container for cremation ashes which biodegrades over time, distributing seedlings into the earth and sprouting trees in memory of the deceased. Belgian design company, Maximal Design has also been inspired by the universal need for designs surrounding death rites. Their Soul Ash Solace is a cremation coffin and urn in one.

The coffin itself is made from lightweight, eco-friendly cardboard, wood and paper maché, all of which burn easily without emitting harmful vapors into the air. The stainless steel urn, which is shaped like an hour-glass to symbolize that 'time heals all wounds,' sits on top of the coffin. The urn withstands the heat of the burning process and gains a uniquely colored patina from the flames.

The idea with Soul Ash Solace is not only to bring beautiful design to a process we all go through, but also to create an inexpensive, environmentally-friendly solution to a ritual that can often be costly and polluting. The design was a nominee in this year's Index: in Copenhagen, a well-deserved recognition of forward-thinking design for a largely unacknowledged, though truly universal life event.


Some things in our society are completely over-designed (how many handbags does one person need?) Other things are so solemn that design is rarely, if ever, considered. Rituals surrounding death fall into the latter category.

Although it happens to everyone at some point, there is not a wide variety of choices out there when it comes down to dealing with human remains. That's why the Bios Urn is such a thoughtful idea.

Designed by the Azuamoline duo, (Martin Ruiz de Azua and Gerard Moliné) the Bios Urn is a container for cremated ashes, made from compacted coconut shells, organic fertilizer and tree seedlings. As the container biodegrades, a seed will sprout, recycling you or your loved one back into the circle of life.

According to designer Azua:

Death always comes and somehow it has to be designed. The actual ritual is old-fashioned and also increases space problems in large cities.

In theory, the Bios Urn would allow graveyards to be turned back into forest over time.

Unfortunately, this design is still just a concept and not out on the market yet, as far as I can tell. Hopefully crematoriums and funeral parlors will make this option available in the near future.


The most earthly looking eco-burial container that we've found is the Capsula Mundi, created by a pair of Italian designers who wanted to remove the taboo from the burial process and give it a new conception.

The Capsula Mundi is an egg-shaped container made of bioplastic. The body of the deceased rests in a fetal position within this capsule, which gets planted in the earth like a bulb. A shallow circular depression is dug above the capsule to symbolize the presence of the body, in the center of which a tree is planted. Over time, the groups of burial sites become a sacred memorial grove.

The Capsula Mundi has made appearances as a design piece in exhibitions around Europe, including one with Droog Design last year. As a show piece, the design is a quintessential representation of a sprouting seed, perfectly encapsulating the designers' goal of regarding death as an opportunity to nourish the earth for the future.


Genetic modification is a controversial subject. We've got corporations promising to reduce world hunger by introducing badly needed nutrients into staple food crops. The same companies sue farmers over ownership of corn whose seedlings were dropped by birds. Such omniscience is both awe-striking and highly suspect given the short past and unpredictable future of biotechnology.

In an artistic response to the advancement of biotech, Biopresence has become its own godlike entity. Biopresence is an art venture currently based in the UK, which, in short, aims to preserve human genetic material by inserting it into living trees. The trees thus become 'living memorials' or 'transgenic tombstones' for the humans whose DNA they contain. This may top cryogenics for unusual final resting options.

Founders Shiho Fukuhara and Georg Tremmel established the venture 'with the purpose of exploring, participating and ultimately defining the most relevant playing field of the 21st century: the impact of biotechnologies on society and the human perception of these coming changes.'

The creators of Biopresence emphasize that their procedure does not result in a genetically-modified organism (GMO). Their method, which comes from collaborating artist/scientist Joe Davis's DNA Manifold Algorithm, allows human genetic information to be stored without affecting the genes of the tree. The 'physical essence of the human body' is produced in the tissue of the tree. As it decays, it releases its decomposition products in order to nurture new plants. Biopresence suggests that the method offers a desireable alternative in countries that have anti-burial laws.

Suffice it to say, Biopresence offers a fascinating new twist on biotechnical experimentation. It's a complex collision of genetics, art and ecology, with a touch of social commentary. And given that the future of genetic modification is as mysterious as life after death, it might be a perfect pairing.

(Posted by Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich in Sustainability Sundays at 10:35 AM)"

(Via WorldChanging: Another World Is Here.)

No comments: