The tendency to hide the reality of death from everyday life – both physically and symbolically – is probably even more pronounced today than ever before and is something that the design of architecture – from hospitals to crematoria – has been complicit in. George Kafka explores research that is looking to change this and proposing new civic infrastructures and spaces that celebrate, memorialise – and utilise – the processes of death.
Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler from Princeton School of Architecture approach their research on death infrastructures recognising the limitations of current attitudes and logistics around death and proposing a reintegration of death for positive social outcomes. Their “Transurban State of Death” project envisions the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as a locus of interconnected facilities that process the bodies of the deceased for heat and energy, but also for virtual value, through the “Internet Legion Veterans’ Club”: a physical and digital space where family members might visit “server gravestones” which store the digital material (ie information from Facebook, Twitter etc. profiles) of the deceased.
As callous as “virtual value” may sound, Gertler and Bragado here acknowledge the digital nature of death in response to the tendency for large chunks of our lives to be lived out online. Social media have already been used as spaces for formal and informal memorialisation for years (Facebook has been operating “memorialised accounts” for its deceased users since 2009) and through this Veterans’ Club, Gertler and Bragado conceive of a location that is an intersection between the virtual and real worlds, forming new interactions between the living and the dead.
The Princeton research has also found that public attitudes to rituals of death are not as rigid as we might assume. Gertler and Bragado found that in South Korea crematia has evolved from being a marginal and taboo practice to the preferred death ritual for ninety percent of the population within the last twenty years. This rapid change came as a result of the spatial limitations of an increasingly urban population, meaning traditional practices (domestic family-mourning ceremonies in a madang courtyard) were not feasible in apartment settings, illustrating how our attitudes to death evolve with social, technological and architectural changes.