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It is a teeming weekday in Bryant Park, with tourists picnicking on the lawn, yoga enthusiasts perfecting their warrior poses and young men in suits learning how to juggle. At sundown, the lawn will turn into an outdoor cinema, emerging poets will read their poems under the park's London Plane trees and friends will dine al fresco near the Fountain Terrace.
Further south in Manhattan, similar scenarios will unfold; crowds enjoying a live performance at one of Madison Square Park’s ‘Music on the Green’ concerts, couples learning to tango in Washington Square Park and seniors playing bocce on the recently upgraded East River Waterfront Esplanade.
With a heavy roster of events, New York City’s parks are brimming with life today, but they weren’t always meant for the living. In the early 1800s, the majority of these spaces were purchased by the city to serve as burial grounds for New Yorkers unable to afford burial in another cemetery and those who died unknown. But as the city expanded northward and the urban fabric encroached on rural grounds, Manhattan’s cemeteries were slowly pushed to the outer boroughs. Today, the city is peppered with bustling green squares – meanwhile, most urban cemeteries are either at or near capacity and cities worldwide are scrambling for solutions. Could our cities’ parks and public spaces hold the key to this burial crisis?
“Spaces of remembrance and contemplation, integrated into everyday life, are crucial for humanity — especially in dense urban environments,” says Karla Rothstein, Associate Professor and Founder of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, DeathLAB – a trans-disciplinary research and design group that focuses on reconceiving how we live with death in cities. “Being able to honor the dead proximate to where we live allows us to stay connected to the perspective of our own mortality, and the obligation we have to our shared future.”
The solution presented, radical in its simplicity and sustainable at its core, is to design an integrative urban system where the dead and the living can coexist on the same plot of land. In New York City, placemaking in cemeteries like Green-Wood, in Brooklyn, has already proven a big success with site-specific public programs ranging from book talks and concerts to night-time festivals and outdoor theatre. “Green-Wood is so uniquely positioned to bring about changes in the way people think about public space as well as the way we engage with monumental questions of life, death, and memory,” says Chelsea J. Dowell, a preservationist, who has served as manager of programs and memberships at Green-Wood Historic fund, helping to transcend the just a cemetery label. “The leadership at Green-Wood deserves a lot of credit,” Dowell continues. “They knew right away that they wanted to be more than just a cemetery and they put the structure in place to make it happen – a culture of curiosity and openness to new ideas, and the management support to try new things, stretch comfort zones, and be aggressive in the public sphere about organizational mission and voice.”
Though the idea of spending leisure time in a cemetery still conjures uneasiness from some, the multiuse concept has garnered some interest over the years. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mount Auburn Cemetery has been running an artist residency program since 2014. This year’s artist-in-residence, playwright and author Patrick Gabridge, is writing a series of site-specific plays that will be staged throughout the cemetery.
In northeast Bronx, Hart Island serves as one of the largest mass graves in the United States, with over one million dead buried on the island. Earlier this year, however, a hearing was held on legislation that would transfer control of the property from the Department of Correction, which currently runs the potters’ field, to the Parks Department, aiming for Hart Island to become a waterfront park accessible by ferry. In an interview for the New York Times in May 2019, visual artist and activist Melinda Hunt, a long-time supporter of the idea, said “the site should continue to be a burial ground even while serving as a park.”
In the city of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Project for Public Spaces – a New York City-based non-profit organisation – facilitated a two-day placemaking training workshop focused on integrating Laurelwood Cemetery into a fast-developing neighbourhood dubbed Knowledge Park. “How can we catalyse this great space that is the cemetery to connect the neighbourhood to the innovation district?” said Laura Torchio, Deputy Director of Transportation Initiatives at PPS. Some “place activation” proposals included biking paths, a community garden, a bird sanctuary and a reflective garden.
And if the idea remains taboo for some, residual concern can be entirely cut out of the equation – by design. New ideas now offer trailblazing burial and cremation alternatives, such as the Coeio Infinity Burial Suit, which promotes environmentally friendly tissue decomposition upon death, and Recompose, a patent-pending process designed for cities where land is scarce. Over the span of 30 days, the body is covered with wood chips and aerated, resulting in soil that can then be used to grow new life. In May 2019, Washington State became the first state in the nation to legalize the practice of above ground decomposition.
So, if permanent plots of land, traditional coffins and tombstones lose their meaning, the cemetery as we know it today finds itself open for complete reinterpretation. This is where DeathLAB’s work gains even more importance. The intertwining of life and death in the urban environment has been in DeathLAB’s DNA from the start. Since its early origins in 2002, the studio has been researching cleaner, more integrative alternatives to burial, culminating in ground-breaking solutions. One, dubbed Sylvan Constellation, was designed as a canopy to be embedded in an existing cemetery outside of Bristol, UK. Another, Constellation Park, takes stock of underutilised public infrastructures in New York, like the underside of the Manhattan Bridge, and proposes to turn it into a public memorial where glowing memorial vessels carrying the remains of the city’s dead would be suspended and illuminated by the organic energy latent in their biomass.
Futuristic though they may sound, DeathLAB’s proposals, currently in the prototype fabrication stage, are the culmination of years of urban-design research and scientific findings, including an extensive study of the historic displacement of New York City‘s dead. “New forms of corpse disposition, engaging the biological and chemical basis of the body, can definitely facilitate the elegant coexistence of the living and the deceased,” says Rothstein.
According to the NYC Department of Health & Mental Health’s 2013 Burial statistics, over 50,000 people die in New York City every year and two thirds of those who have chosen burial end up interred outside of the city’s five boroughs. And while New York’s dense fabric amplifies the problem, urban burial is a worldwide crisis.
Much like Manhattan’s urbanisation, late-20th-century high-speed urban developments in Asia gave rise to new settlements, which encircled old Chinese cemeteries. In her 2016 essay, ‘From Cemeteries to Luxurious Memorial Parks’, Claudine Salmon described that in cities like Manila, Jakarta and Surabaya, migrants squatted on cemetery land and some municipal authorities issued regulations to close and eventually demolish these sites. “It is in the context of this grave burial crisis that the private sector came in,” she wrote.
Following an initial 1964 private-led initiative that introduced the concept of deathscape, or notional landscape of death, in Southeast Asia, Nirvana Asia was founded in 1990. Today, after popularising the concept of the memorial park at the periphery of cities, the privately-owned company counts over 17 sites across Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. The biggest of them all, which also happens to be the world’s largest privatised memorial park, stretches across 515 acres of land a 25-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur. To attract customers, Salmon explained, sales managers have to fight the general perception that the Chinese have of cemeteries “full of negative energy” by presenting these new burial sites as peaceful public gardens.
In Hong Kong, where Nirvana was on the stock exchange before it was bought out in 2016 by Private-equity firm CVC Capital Partners, ground burials are mostly outlawed due to severe land restrictions. In 2014 in Quartz, Heather Timmons reported that “space in local columbaria is so scare that there are lottery systems for public niche spaces,” some of them costing as much as HK$500,000 ($64,483) in private columbaria like those run by Nirvana.
In Japan, the burial scene is equally dire. In 2017, the cost of one lot in the prestigious Aoyama Cemetery amounted to $100,000, while a spot in one of Japan’s locker-style columbarium (nokotsudo) fetched $12,000. The Ruri-den Byakurenge-do columbarium, in Tokyo's modern district of Shinjuku, has been offering a high-tech alternative since 2006. Inside this humble, traditional Buddhist burial site are walls lined with over 2,000 urns nestled in individual alcoves, with each urn represented by an LED Buddha statue that lights up when visitors swipe the corresponding card. After a 33-year period, the urns are moved to a crypt beneath the sanctuary’s floor.
Some thirty minutes west, the much more modern Shinjuku Ruriko-in Byakurenge-do temple features a high-tech vault system with space for up to 7,000 urns. Designed by Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama of Amorphe, the temple also comprises an intimate hall for Buddhist services and concerts, a meditation space and a museum. In a 2015 interview for Icon, Takeyama said: “Once, temples in Japan were not only a place of prayer and training, but also a school, hospital and cultural complex of museum, concert hall, library and so on. This project is an attempt to revive these cultural programmes in a contemporary temple’s design.”
In the case of Ruriko-in, the vault is off-limits and only accessible by visitors whose relatives are interred there, but the idea that lies at the heart of the programming, that of designing a temple to bear multiple uses, all of which are to quietly coexist with one other, is one that could find a place in the structure of the modern cemetery.
This past decade has seen designers and architects introduce a plethora of costly proposals like a floating cemetery off the coast of Hong Kong or high-rise mausolea in Oslo or Mumbai. Building up, however, is not a sustainable solution. In a world plagued by a global housing crisis, we cannot sacrifice living space by building skyscraper cities for our dead. Instead, architects and urban planners should forgo new-builds in favour of more integrative approaches. As the work of New York City’s DeathLAB suggests, the burial space we so desperately need for our dead may already be available for us to use by harnessing new technologies.
In fact, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Sara D Roosevelt Park, in part a former African American burial ground, is under the microscope at Rothstein’s Summer Advanced Architectural Design studio. The latter is indeed working on reconceiving the park to facilitate the coexistence of life, death and remembrance. “Disposition should not be separated from memorialization as we simultaneously respond to constraints of space and resource consumption,” says Rothstein, whose ultimate goal is to interweave public activities with a new form of sustainable cemetery inside the park. In the studio, the graduate students are working in pairs to imagine a future where the existing programs coexist with new forms of urban cemetery.
Shifting perceptions of traditions as old as time can only happen if architects, city planners and policymakers alike address the urgency together and break the taboo by design. Looking beyond the overcrowded, segregated cemetery will mean a wholesome overhaul of our public spaces and a complete reconsideration of the way we accommodate and remember the dead – and as Rothstein says, “make them more part of everyday life”.
The original article appeared in MONU #31 After Life Urbanism