WRITING

Death, Dying, and the Pursuit of Sustainment: Using the Six-Point Experiential Framework to Understand and Improve the Design of Death Management.

Introduction

After death, our corporeal mass will always remain. The sanitation of death practices has disconnected us from the reality of its closeness (Rothstein, 2018, p. 33), and has released us from the disquieting truth of a pertinent environmental cataclysm that increases in severity alongside the ever-rising global population rate. In this essay, I will summarize existing traditional funerary methods and their serious environmental impacts, bring attention to emerging funerary methods that challenge traditional means and examine them within current experiential design discourse – specifically situating them within Jonathan Chapman’s six-point experiential framework (2009, p. 33), and will propose a method of speculative behaviour change through social-experiential design that addresses dying as a forethought in the future of sustainability and movements towards degrowth.

Common Funerary Practices

As the global population increases exponentially each year, sustainment is desperately needed to counteract the environmental impact of each person’s death. According to Columbia University’s DeathLAB, “800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid” is used yearly during burial processes and bodies are buried without drainage of the embalming fluid, which risks “groundwater and soil leaching”. The caskets themselves use “Over 90,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and over 30 million board feet of hardwoods … annually for buried caskets” (“Funerary Processes” n.d.). Beyond the body itself, each new burial leaves less space for the next one. Many countries that have run out of room are leasing plots for a fixed term, before shifting the bodies to a new, more condensed location (Ferraz, 2018). 

With these statistics, many see cremation as the ‘greener’ option (Cooper-White, 2017), but this is also detrimental to the environment. In terms of energy consumption, cremation uses almost double that of a casket burial, at 583 Kwh (“Funerary Processes” n.d.) per body. That is equivalent to driving over 1,000 miles in an average passenger car (“Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator” 2018). Once the body is cremated, ash scattering also proves detrimental to the environment. In popular scattering fields, the soil can become more acidic, “potentially altering the type and volume of vegetation” (Clark, 2013). Flameless cremation, or Alkaline Hydrolysis, is a method of liquefaction that disintegrates flesh and leaves behind bone residue. (Bromwich, 2017) While this process only uses 90 Kwh of energy and contributes only 10kg of carbon emissions per body, (“Funerary Processes” n.d.) the sterility of the process is sometimes regarded as being disrespectful, and avoided regardless of the objective benefits. (Senger, 2014).

The Six-Point Experiential Framework

Through these statistics, the process of death remains a deeply personal and emotional experience. The gaps between these funerary processes has left room for designers to explore new ways of creating funerary methods that better address a holistic way of grieving. To situate these forthcoming design examples, I will use my research-guided estimations and plot them against a visualization of Jonathan Chapman’s six-point experiential framework (2009, p. 33). In Design for (Emotional) Durability, Chapman uses this as a method of understanding user’s relationships with their domestic electronic products (2009, p.29), and a pathway for designers to lengthen the life cycle of a product by considering  “immaterial phenomena that influence product longevity” (2009, p. 33). Through an empirical study, Chapman was able to distill user’s experience with their objects into six delineations: 

“Narrative: Users share a unique personal history with the product; this often relates to when, how, and from whom the object was acquired.


Detachment: Users feel no emotional connection to the product, have low expectations, and thus perceive it in a favorable way due to a lack of emotional demand or expectation. (This also suggests that attachment may actually be counterproductive, as it elevates the level of expectation within the user to a point that is often unattainable.)


Surface: The product is physically aging well and developing a tangible character through time and use (and sometimes misuse).


Attachment: Users feel a strong emotional connection to the product, due to the service it provides, the information it contains, and the meaning it conveys.


Fiction: Users are delighted or even enchanted by the product as they do not yet fully understood or know it, especially with a recently purchased product that is still being explored and discovered.


Consciousness: The product is perceived as autonomous and in possession of its own free will. It is quirky and often temperamental, and interaction is an acquired skill that can be fully acquired only with practice.” (2009, p. 33)

The relationships between these categories can be used regarding death design to situate a product both environmentally and emotionally, regardless of religious affiliations and differences. It is a useful visualization tool, and in discussing products associated with death it can be applied to both the initial user, and those who use the object after the initial user’s death (the posthumous user). This durability framework correlates with degrowth and sustainment, as a well-rounded design within the framework theoretically lasts longer and promotes less extraneous product use. 

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Burial Methods

While burial has previously been stated as an environmental detriment, for many it is the only acceptable option. Regardless of a lack of space, be it by faith or cultural restrictions, burial remains a common method of dealing with the dead. In response to environmental concerns, the natural burial shroud is being revived as a ‘green method’ of burial (Herzog, 2016) With only a linen shroud and no embalming fluids, it is an essentialized burial. Under Chapman’s framework, it ranks low in all respects aside from detachment. It’s permeability and simplicity leave nothing to story, consciousness or surface, but as previously stated, detachment does not necessarily carry a negative connotation (Chapman, 2009, p. 33)

Two interesting ways that designers are reimagining burial are JR Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit and Shaina Garfield’s Leaves .By incorporating mushroom spores that aid decomposition and filter body toxins into her burial suit, Lee promotes the narrative that “we should come together with the earth naturally after we die” (“FAQs » Coeio” n.d.) Garfield has incorporated a fungus in her shroud for similar reasons, but pushes burial to a wider emotional scope through ritual. The body is tied to a stretcher with rope that is tied together by loved ones. This physical act happens over time, creating a narrative for those who took part in the burial (“Leaves” n.d.) While Infinity Burial Suit and Leaves lay similarly within the framework, the narrative within Leaves pushes it closer to a full realization of emotional durability. 

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Cremation Methods and Ash Care

The sterility of Alkaline Hydrolysis, as previously mentioned, ranks highly in the detachment section and nowhere else. Against the framework, it is easy to understand how many people are emotionally opposed to its use. Alkaline Hydrolysis is the only alternative cremation method on this list, as Capsula Mundi and Mourn are methods of managing ashes created through cremation. Capsula Mundi, designed by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, is a capsule for ashes that acts as the base for a tree (“Capsula Mundi” n.d.). Not only does this provide a narrative before death to the initial user, but leaves a physical, long lasting reminder of that story for the posthumous user. For this reason, it reaches high points on the attachment level and the surface level. Mourn by design studio Nienke Hoogvliet addresses the toxins released by scattering ashes through a conical “waste water urn” created by mixing ashes with bioplastic. The cone slowly disintegrates, giving time for the soil to regulate toxins. (“Mourn” n.d.) This slow degradation allows it to place moderately on both the attachment and detachment branches. This is also the first of the designs to rank highly on the fiction branch, as it is not fully realized how this process will be actualized.

Memorialization Methods

To move towards sustainable death practices designers must move away from the physicality of death objects. Consideration of memorialization methods before death can help steer a user towards a more sustainable outcome for their own bodies. As “current funerary and memorialization habits facilitate the sequestration of death from daily life, countering these practices would catalyze thoughtful engagement with mortality and emphasize intergenerational accountability. “ (Rothstein, 2018, p. 32) With Neri Oxman’s Lazarus Death Mask (Morby, 2016), high points are reached in all but two of the frameworks categories. The mask is a beautiful “air urn” containing the trace of the last breath that the initial user took. It’s surface is sleek, it provides both fiction and narrative, and allows loved ones to hold onto memories through visualization. Even with it’s high marks elsewhere, It ranks very low in the detachment branch, which stands as a testament to the correlation of this framework with degrowth, as it a 3D printed object that cannot be sustained throughout time. 

This is where a shift towards behaviour change is evidently needed. The need for understanding death before death is the most effective path towards degrowth. Within Chapman’s framework, Frank Kolkman’s Outerspectre death simulator is the most rounded of aforementioned design pieces. A virtual reality experience, a user sees themselves leave their own body and float away (Carter, 2017). While this happens to be a materially unsustainable product, it instills an understanding and connection with death that is often avoided, creating a reaction that moves towards personal reflection and potentially degrowth. This is also the first of the designs that approaches a high consciousness rating, as VR replicates and replaces a users understanding of their immediate surroundings.

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Speculative Degrowth

While Kolkman’s Outerspectre evokes new attitudes towards death, behaviour change before death, albeit challenging, is the most sustainable route to degrowth. My speculative project, Living Death (Fig. 5), imagines a societal practice of meditation in which people share ‘living graves’ in the form of depressions in the ground, as a common area for reflection and death consideration. Each person is responsible for a rest shroud that they are given at birth. The shroud ages alongside the user, and is used as a temporary lining when visiting the living graves. This connection to the aging surface of the shroud accounts for a high surface rating within the framework. As “a resource becomes commons when it is taken care of by a community” (Helfrich & Bollier, 2015, p. 75), the Living Death fields will be maintained by those who use it. Because of its commonality, users will see others coming to the same site, and understand that they are not alone in their worries about death. 

With this consideration, conversations around death may become easier, and realizations of environmental risks will rise to the forefront of critical discourse. Methods of body preparation and management will be easier to discuss and design, leading to sorely needed innovations. I also believe that reflection will improve the lives of users, as a form of meditation and personal understanding. Attachment and detachment simultaneously exist, as one begins to have an attachment to the care of their body posthumously, as well as a fuller understanding of the detachment that is inevitable with death. Consciousness is rated highly as the living grave provides a physical reminder of the imminence of death, and narrative can be carried through each individual’s rest shroud. This behaviour change towards reflection and unity with death supports a degrowth mentality towards an ever-increasing problem, and was ideated through utilization of Chapman’s experiential framework (2009, p. 33).

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Conclusion

Chapman’s six-point experiential framework (2009, p. 33) as a tool for measuring durable practices in death design is verifiable and demonstrated extensively throughout this essay. By visualizing the framework, a new approach to degrowth and sustainment can be reached in a systematic way that leaves little room for unsustainable practice. The framework also supports the understanding that design and sustainability are closely linked to emotion and spirituality, regardless of religious affiliation. Under this criterion, death wholly becomes a design issue. With Living Death, I introduce the idea of becoming comfortable with death’s imminence, as behaviour change is a key factor in sustainable practices. Movement towards degrowth begins with a common understanding of the risk of complacency, and with Living Death, I hope to instill a sense of agency about one’s own posthumous corporeal responsibility.

[March 2020]

WORKS CITED

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Ferraz, R. (2018, October 18). Cemetery Overcrowding is Leading Europe to Recycle Burial Plots. Retrieved from https://www.talkdeath.com/cemetery-overcrowding-leading-europe-recycle-burial-plots/

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Herzog, K. (2016, May 29). A different way to die: The story of a natural burial. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2016/5/29/11775976/natural-green-burial

Leaves. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.shainagarfield.com/leaves-1

Morby, A. (2016, December 12). Neri Oxman’s Lazarus death masks visualise the wearer’s last breath. Retrieved from https://www.dezeen.com/2016/12/12/neri-oxmans-lazarus-death-masks-visualise-the-wearers-last-breath/

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Senger, E. (2014, February 05). Going green after death. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/ashes-to-mashes/