Ever since the stuffy cultural pinnacle that was Victorian Britain, this country has been cautiously emolliating many of our most latent taboos – from exposing seemingly-lubricious piano legs (it is believed some Victorians covered them up) to legalising same-sex relationships. Although more self-critical dialogue is still needed in the majority of these categories, one prosaic taboo which still remains conspicuously ignored is that of death. The relative lack of progress in this area can be partly explained by the grip of our instinctual fears, deeply-embedded religious doctrines, and the heart-felt sensitivity of this gargantuan and complex issue. However whilst there is a lot at stake, there is also a lot to gain.
Perhaps surprisingly, this issue did not occur to me whilst at a funeral, but rather through an Architecture-degree project labelled, ‘The Sustainable Death Centre’. In this investigation we were charged with sustainably re-defining our customary infrastructure of death – be it graveyards, religious buildings or crematoriums. The first thing that struck me was generally how little discussion and indeed expense, has been contemporarily committed to this extensive field – rather illogically in my opinion, as at such emotional apexes as death, high-quality architecture could perhaps be at its most effective in both uplifting, and hopefully assisting in the healing during the entire grieving process.
The second thing which struck me was the nature of our designated final resting places. During a field trip we visited both a conventional graveyard and a newly-developed ‘natural burial site’. Now although graveyard are often one of the more peaceful and green oases in our noisy cities, the ranks of cold tombstones, often isolated locations, customary lack of ‘life’, and high iron fences, demarcate this ‘city of the dead’ as distinctly separate from the ‘living’ quarters – and so in our land, so in our minds. As much as we may try to eliminate it, death will always, and perhaps should always, remain an inescapable aspect of human existence.
Furthermore, our conventions of preserving a corpse whole in a wooden box – or burning the remains down to an incomprehensible charred ash before preserving in a small wooden box – clearly reveal our innate cultural terror of death.
Why do we so insist on preserving our remains?
Well, it’s probably got broad cultural connotations, but roughly speaking, in Western societies it mostly relates to the controversial Christian concept of ‘The Rapture’. In this regularly prophesised end-of-days event, the ‘dead shall rise’ as the ‘fire and brimstone’ rains down upon the earth. Jesus will then return to collect the faithful – both alive and undead – so they can harmoniously ascend to heaven together. The crucial bit is, the undead faithful need to have their bodies ‘fully intact’ in order to rise again. It is this obscure desire to posthumously prepare for the theoretical end of the world, which has fanned our attempts to permanently remove ourselves from this Planet’s ongoing circle of life.
An alternative, as I mentioned previously is natural burial sites. These have been springing-up all over the country over recent years, including the one I visited in the South Downs in Hampshire.
At these sites, the deceased are laid to rest in their clothes only, several feet underground. Then, as the dug earth is placed back on top, a tree seed (of the families’ choosing) is planted above them. As the tree grows, it absorbs the nutrients from the naturally bio-degrading body in the original circle of life, if you will. Thus the deceased ‘lives on’, through an organism which is roughly 60% genetically the same (one start-up genetics company is even offering to fuse your actual DNA with a tree) The tree is designated in a plot so it can be easily traced – or in some sites, a small electronic tracer is also planted with the body. Once the tree is developed, a bird or small mammal box can also be affixed – inscribed with a personal message, should the family so desire.
The experience of walking through a fresh forest glade, surrounded by wildlife and greenery, and being able to touch a living tree embedded with my ancestor’s remains, would, I perceive, be far more emotionally comforting than being confronted with a cold slab of stone erected above semi-preserved remains. It is entirely conceivable (as already happens in such burial sites) that a family day-outing or picnic could be hosted in such a healthy, uplifting area; seamlessly reconnecting the living with our ancestors.
Nowadays, about 70% of UK funerals are conducted via cremation. Although it makes more sense than burying a wooden coffin in our small land-restricted country, it has some notable drawbacks. One, quite prominently, is pollution. The burning process releases large amount of carbon dioxide, but also more acutely, extremely harmful mercury residues from the jewellery, medical implants, and false teeth burned in the process. The vaporised metal from cremation accounts for some 16% of the UK’s mercury emissions, and should, notwithstanding an impending EU directive, be immediately reduced.
One way round this is to totally ban jewellery altogether, and to remove the embedded medical implants beforehand. However, if it’s a hip replacement or similar, it could prove rather tricky and indeed disfiguring to obtain. Another option is to install filtration systems. However, these are not totally effective and have proven extremely costly; so many crematoria services have been slow to respond.
Once more, an interesting but relatively unknown alternative is available – promession. Invented by a Swedish biologist in 1999 as a more sustainable, humane burial, this process initially involves submerging the deceased into liquid nitrogen. The brittle body is then vibrated down to a fine nutrient-rich powder, the residue metals are removed and recycled via magnets, and then the remains are placed inside a bio-degradable starch box ready for burial with a tree seed.
The World’s first Promessas are due to open this year in Sweden, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, and hopefully the UK, for which large interest has been expressed. From my point of view, this process beautifully balances emotional, ecological and land-usage concerns.
The UK, along with entire world, is currently locked in an uphill battle to swiftly reduce carbon emissions. This concept uses less energy, produces far less carbon dioxide and poisonous pollutants, reconnects the people with the land, supports biodiversity, and ultimately offers a more emotionally healing environment.
For most people, the desire to have a tombstone erected is to leave a ‘legacy’ behind. In this era of extreme environmental degradation, what better legacy to leave behind for your children than helping to make the world a healthier, literally greener, more sustainable place?
Furthermore, from a sustainable architecture point of view, the only way we can currently achieve zero-carbon building is through ramping up the usage of wood in our designs. With the world attempting to halt mass deforestation by 2015, where is all this fresh wood going to come from? If we begin planting forests now, not only will it rapidly help to absorb the UK’s carbon emissions, but perhaps in a generation or two, we could begin to carefully harvest a crop – which could be tastefully incorporated within new, sustainable builds. Can anyone think of a better way to honour the legacy of say, the late playwright Harold Pinter, than by incorporating timbers from his descendent tree into a new theatre for London in 2060? Now that would really be something to die for.