No Vacancy

In Hong Kong, recently bereaved family members find themselves with literally nowhere to go—with their beloved’s ashes.

The city’s public columbaria—which is the name for buildings that house cinerary urns, so that the spirit of the deceased can “watch over” them, and family members can visit and pay their respects on annual holidays—are all completely full, and with yearslong waiting lists, according to many news reports. There are private columbaria, but the costs are prohibitively expensive for most families.

And although Hong Kong’s governing agency for funerals is heavily promoting scattering cremated ashes at sea or in remembrance gardens, this practice still cuts heavily against the Chinese cultural inclination to honor their ancestors with their own permanent home.

In Japan, even the crematoriums are overcrowded, meaning that there is sometimes a several-day delay before a family member can be received. This has led to the creation of—and immediate resistance to—so-called “corpse hotels,” nondescript buildings in residential neighborhoods that house the deceased in individual rooms until their scheduled appointment with eternity.

Even London and New York City are coping with a squeeze on space. And the problem is expected to worsen worldwide as the aging population continues to grow.

Fortunately, architects, systems thinkers, designers, and museum curators have been thinking about this problem for years, creating contests and conversations to stimulate new thinking about interment. The Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York City even has a research and design initiative called DeathLab, the goal of which is to reconceive and reinvent how death lives on in a modern metropolis.