21st century death: Corpse cocoons and solar-powered graves? (pictures)

A contest called "Design for Death" asks participants to reimagine mourning and burial for the 21st century. Their intriguing solutions range from reverent to eco-practical to downright strange.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
Leslie Katz
1 of 12 Asta Sadauskaite, Loucas Papantoniou

A new kind of family tree

What will burial and remembrance look like in the 21st century? "Design for Death," a contest organized by the site Designboom, aimed to find possible answers. Some 2,050 designers from 96 countries participated in the competition, which just opened for a second round, with a submission deadline of September 1. Here's a sampling of the many compelling designs from the first round of submissions.

Family Tree "ensures that the love family members share for each other in life will continue for eternity," say designers Loucas Papantoniou and Asta Sadauskaite of Lithuania.

The designers -- who won first place in the contest's "Wrapping of Mortality" category -- picture a cluster of honeycomb-shaped wooden urn vaults, each one belonging to a deceased family member. The vaults feature an OLED display that emits a serene, pulsing light and also transmits the name of the deceased with a short memorial message. Should family members wish to change the text on the urns, they can do so from their mobile phones.

Papantoniou and Sadauskaite aren't the first to link mobile phones to grave sites. A Phoenix-based company called Objecs created a system that makes it possible for cemetery visitors to access text and images from the deceased by touching a phone to a headstone.

2 of 12 Enzo Pascual, Pierre Riviere

From death to growth

Emergence, the project that took first place in the "Eco-green Deathcare" category of the Design for Death competition, consists of a lower and upper portion. A biodegradable coffin enriches the soil underground, while nourishing a "reservoir of life" above where plants grow and absorb atmospheric CO2.

Designers Enzo Pascual and Pierre Rivière of France say Emergence highlights the afterlife based on the maxim attributed to 18th century French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier: "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed."

With the environmental impact of traditional burials getting more public attention, many designers who submitted to the Design for Death contest turned to recycled and compostable materials for caskets and urns.

3 of 12 Sophia Neumann, Theopistos Tzioutzias

Cocooned corpses

Designers Sophia Neumann and Theopistos Tzioutzias of Germany imagine burial cocoons that symbolize death not as an ending, but as a transformation. "The cocoon stands as a poetic picture for metamorphosis and the transformation to a spiritual layer, while it is seen as a second skin, to cover and protect the body," they say.

How does a body end up in one of the cocoons?

After loved ones have paid their respects to the deceased, the body is placed on a special wooden platform, and coated and varnished using a special resin gun. Every cocoon is uniquely sculpted based on the shape of the body, and even designs and colors can vary.

Following the memorial ceremony, the cocoons are installed in a cemetery that resembles a tropical greenhouse. The cocoons can ultimately be composted.

4 of 12 Hadas Arnon

Digital remembrances

Hadas Arnon's design acknowledges the power and pervasiveness of the digital lifestyle. The Israeli designer proposes small memorial sticks that could hold data recalling the lives of loved ones.

Multiple sticks would reside in a memorial archive or library, and could be accessed via a quick computer search. Visitors could take the stick to a quiet, private room meant for looking at pictures, watching movies, and otherwise remembering their loved ones.

With an increase in the world's population, caring for the dead has become an issue of increasing importance in many nations. Arnon, as well as a number of other designers who submitted to the Design for Death contest, looked in various ways toward saving space and resources.

5 of 12 Lecafelkf

Power of the sun

"Graveyards are often considered to be creepy, scary, and lonely," notes designer Lecafelkf, who proposes more uplifting cemeteries bathed in light. His solar-powered tombstones would have mirrors that redirect sunlight to a central heating tower that moves to catch the reflected rays.

"The initial higher cost is offset by the energy produced, with the investment of a past or present generation becoming an asset for future generations," the designer says.

The tombstones, like a number of other designs submitted to the Design for Death contest, can accommodate individualization. They could be customized by size, shape, height, and material.

6 of 12 Aya Kishi

Rainbow reflections

Like Lecafelkf's solar-powered tombstones, Aya Kishi suggests incorporating natural light into grave sites. Kishi's "After the Rain" places a series of optical prisms into tombstones to create a spectrum of light on the ground near a grave. The light would have a rainbow quality after storms, suggesting that there can be beauty during and after grieving.
7 of 12 Zhufei Zhufei

Printed posthumously

This short-listed entry by Chinese designer Zhufei Zhufei implements a hot up-and-coming technology, 3D printing, to incorporate the ashes of a loved into materials used to make a small-scale sculpture. It's definitely one of the more outlandish submissions to the Design for Death competition, which was organized by design site Designboom, in collaboration with the Lien Foundation and the ACM Foundation, with support from the National Funeral Directors Association.

Of the sculpture, one Designboom commenter said: "Freaking absurd!!! I want to be a Mickey Mouse sculpture forever and rest on top of the TV so my grandkids can watch TV with Grandpa Mickey."

8 of 12 Agnes Hegedus

Floating ashes

By 2025, more than 50 percent of dead Americans will be cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Agnes Hegedus of Hungary designed a floating urn that gives people like them a watery place of rest.

Made from recycled organic materials, such as paper, straw, and grass, the urn slowly sinks over the course of a few minutes as part of the memorial ceremony. There's room for a candle inside and a memorial plaque can be attached to the top.

Hegedus sees her invention as distinctly 21st century given that the increasing number of people choosing cremation as a cheaper, more environmentally friendly burial solution. It won second place in the Design for Death's "Wrapping of Mortality" category.

9 of 12 Chen Jiashan

Circle of life

Also catering to the cremated is Souvenair by Chen Jiashan of France. It's a 3-inch brass ring, containing a portion of a loved one's ashes, that can be hung indoors or outdoors. The round shape serves as a reminder of that death is part of the circle of life, says the designer, while the bar evokes a beginning and an end.

Souvenair won third prize in the "Wrapping of Mortality" category.

10 of 12 Chen Jiashan

Part of the scenery

The Souvenair can be hung indoors or outdoors.

"Its metallic surface shines and reflects the light when the sun shines, in addition [to] vibrating to create sound when the wind blows," designer Chen Jiashan says. "So that the Souvenair is really that: an urn that diffuses the memory within the air."

11 of 12 Adrian Zamora

Strength of trees

"The strength of a tree depends on its age; each ring of the trunk represents one more year of existence," says designer Adrian Zamora of Mexico. "The nostalgia of losing someone invites us to remember his strength forever."

Zamora's ceramic Life Rings would live at the base of trees that grow as a memorial to the deceased. The rings would also contain small LED lamps that light up at night.

12 of 12 Weii

Blooming box

Designer Weii of Germany submitted another eco-minded solution: a box that's made of recycled paper and decomposes over time.

The "a-box" wouldn't just hold ashes, however. It would also house seeds for a plant, chosen from a catalog of options, that would bloom at the burial spot as a natural and beautiful reminder of the person who passed away.

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