The Death Lab

When you first hear the name "DeathLab," you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a black-metal band from Norway, or a curious TV series about an oddities shop on the Discovery Channel. But no. What DeathLab actually is, is an ambitious research collaborative that is part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). The group's focus? "Alternative methods of disposition." Or, to put it more bluntly, find new ways to deal with our society's dead, as our cities' open spaces shrink and burial becomes less and less of a sustainable option. (Heck, in some cities, they don't even have places to put cremains.)

Headed by Karla Rothstein, DeathLab has been spearheading a conversation about the need to reconsider death in cities, by creating research and designs that make the case for radical change. One of DeathLabs recent designs won an international juried competition, held by Future Cemetery, an organization comprised of several design and academic groups including the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

The winning concept—called the Sylvan Constellation—is beautifully elegant, environmentally responsible, and eternally renewing, as its “bioconversion vessels” will, according to Rothstein, “accept and honor new deaths in perpetuity, while preserving far more woodland vegetation than earthen burial” and will also take formerly private cemeteries and turn them back into public gathering spaces.

The energy generated by the breakdown of the bodies within bioconversion pods—lofted on slender steel pylons—creates energy to illuminate a system of lights. Some of DeathLab’s plans even propose suspending the bioconversion pods from beneath major standing structures such as the Manhattan Bridge, generating a public light sculpture, while also illustrating the cycle of life and death, as the pods’ brightness eventually dims when the decomposition process is complete. And this allows the process to begin all over again with another body.

 A rendering of a DeathLab project idea, Constellation Park, in which bioconversion pods cast light created by the energy generated from the decay within, creating a breathtaking visual representation of the cycle of life. 

A rendering of a DeathLab project idea, Constellation Park, in which bioconversion pods cast light created by the energy generated from the decay within, creating a breathtaking visual representation of the cycle of life. 

It is also a rather elegant way to incorporate the truth of death into our daily life, creating a beautiful public display that reminds us of our mortality, and the utterly natural cycle that represents.