The New Urban Cemetery
The future of burial might take us from cradle to compost.
A walk through a cemetery, amongst the aging steady headstones, under leafy trees, might seem like a walk back in time. Death is one of the places where tradition and superstition are incredibly strong. Change is met with skepticism. Cemeteries are forever, right?
Not exactly. The graveyard as Americans know it is of relatively recent vintage. The idea that each of us would get our own little slice of a vast green lawn is an idea that didn't fully take hold in the United States until the early 1800s.
And these places where the dead go are going to continue to evolve. The future of graveyards is coming, and here’s what it might look like.
At Arnos Vale Cemetery in the UK, visitors can get everything from a nice lunch to a yoga lesson. The cemetery has long been committed to bringing people in—and they host everything from dog walking excursions to weddings. And last year they launched something called the Future Cemetery—an experiment in turning a graveyard into an interactive experience. “We all know death is in the future, we just want to make the future more visible,” says John Troyer, a professor at the University of Bath and a founder of the project.
The idea of the Future Cemetery is to create a place for people to connect with death. What that actually means and looks like is still in development, Troyer says, but in the first stage of the project they did everything from projections to audio installations. Now, they’re working on developing augmented reality experiences in cemeteries—elements that are only visible with certain devices and if you know they’re there. The idea is to allow people to add to their own cemetery experience without infringing on others.
That could mean things like projections of old photos of a person on their tombstone, or the voices of the dead reading passages. It could mean an augmented map layer that gives visitors more information about the lives of the people buried there, or a live performance of someone’s favorite play. “There will always be a cemetery-like space,” Troyer says. “What’s going on right now is a rethinking of what the cemetery could be.”
For some, rethinking cemeteries involves more than augmenting the traditional structure of a sprawling field of headstones. The Urban Death Project takes a decidedly different tact. Rather than taking a loved one to a cemetery or crematorium, architect Katrina Spade has designed a space where bodies are composted into reusable earth. This is essentially what happens to bodies in cemeteries eventually, she points out. The Urban Death project simply consolidates and celebrates that process. “I love the idea that we could have a positive impact on the environment, from soil regeneration to climate change,” Spade says, “and I really like that idea that we could be productive one time after we die.”
Spade’s project is motivated by a number of things. The first is religion, or more precisely the lack of it. “I was thinking about my own mortality, and I was thinking about my family, and we’re all non-religious,” she says. “If you have a loved one that dies, many people have a religious figure to turn to, and if you don’t have that to turn to, what kind of guidance is out there?” This may resonate with others: According to a Pew survey, 16.1 percent of adults are unaffiliated with a religion. That is twice the number of adults who say they were unaffiliated with a religion as kids—those who grew up with religion are abandoning it in droves.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1 percent) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.
The second is the environment, and the harsh toll that the funeral industry can take on it. The UDP website lists some statistics about burials: We bury 30 million board feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel each year, and use 750,000 gallons of embalming fluid. “I asked myself if I could find a new system for the disposal of our dead that honored decomposition, and created the ritual for those who are non-religious, and something that would reconnect with nature in an urban setting. Wouldn’t you like to go on your lunch break and see the plants that are growing from the actual people who lived in this city before you?”
Spade is quick to point out that she’s not asking anybody to skip burial if burial is meaningful to them. “If traditional burial is appealing to someone—great. It’s environmentally fraught but so are a lot of things we do,” she told me. Rather, she’s looking to give people another option. And she recognizes that the idea of a loved one being composted along side other bodies is hard for some to get behind. But she’s also already had interest. “We’ve had some people offer up their bodies,” she says, “and the timing might not work out but it’s been really inspiring and emotional.”
A cornerstone of many of these urban cemetery design is the issue of space—as cities get bigger and space gets more constrained, there simply won’t be room for the same kinds of cemeteries we’ve been using. The Urban Death Project can handle hundreds of bodies without increasing in size. Others have proposed vertical cemeteries—rather than having bodies lay on their back, these would have them slotted into the ground feet first. But Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and death theorist, isn’t convinced that we’re out of burial space, especially not in the United States. “There is room in cities for cemeteries. Just build one less Chipotle, or one less Target,” she told me. “If you’ve ever flown across the United States, you know we’re not out of space.”
For Doughty, bringing cemeteries into the cities rather than pushing them out into rural areas is a question of updating our relationship with death, not of efficiency or space constraints. “It’s important to have the bodies inside the city as reminders of mortality,” she says, echoing Troyer’s earlier goal.
Troyer points out that while we may see a cemetery as a decidedly non-technological place, it’s actually full of innovation. “Cemeteries are layer after layer of human invention, and because it’s non-digital it goes past us as being technological.” From the sign systems we use to the ways we put bodes in the ground to the gravestones, each piece is a kind of technology. “Burial has been one of the most significant and pervasive human inventions ever.” In that sense, Troyer says, what might seem like an unlikely match between technology and cemeteries is actually a natural one.
The challenge in updating a cemetery, especially updating it in a technological sense, is that we’re talking about three different speeds. Cemeteries operate on the scale of hundreds of years, if not more. In theory they’re meant to keep, or at least memorialize, bodies essentially forever. Then there is the speed of a human life—the people whose bodies will have to be dealt with, and whose minds will have to be changed about burial. And the third is digital technology—which has been accelerating for decades. The future of cemeteries lies in jumping between those three speeds, finding something that is both lasting and meaningful.
“If you’re just there to show off some gizmo, that’s not going to have a long term applicability, says Troyer. “You need something that really connects with this idea of death. So you have to start with death and let that inform that technology.”
When they started, Troyer said one of the first things they agreed upon was that they weren’t making an app. “Everybody said: Oh, are you going to have an app? Why would we need an app? There’s a cautionary tale here—don’t fall into a language of innovation that isn’t necessary,” he says. “It isn’t necessary to disrupt the cemetery.”
Doughty says that when thinking about changing rituals surrounding death there is really only one golden rule regardless of the technologies. “What’s essential, if I had to pick one thing, is that those who remain feel good about it,” she says.