Exploring new ways of dying

By Cheyenne van Dreumel

Death is a subject deemed taboo in western culture, but that doesn’t stop the industry from evolving the way we deal and process with death. The question arises: are we on the road towards accepting death as a part of life or working towards a life with no limit?

Writer Ernest Becker describes the theory that human civilisation is an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Claudia Crobatia, the founder of ‘A Course in Dying’, a platform on death awareness aims to open up the conversation about death. By inspiring people to contemplate mortality, reduce death anxiety and gain a new perspective on life. Part of her strategy to raise awareness is to film cemetery reviews and post them on YouTube.

Crobatia explains her motivation as a deathfluencer: “We have lost many of our rituals involving death and grief in today’s society; death itself has also fallen into oblivion when it used to be an essential part of our lives. I want to break the taboo and examine how we now relate to our mortality.”

The whole process of dying is an ongoing conversation including the choice of burial. When laying the body to rest traditionally we are presented with two options: burial or cremation. Choosing either between a pretty casket or solid vase. However, in recent years, progress has been made regarding burial and preservation of the remains.

More than the basics

Designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel have created ‘Capsula Mundi’, an egg-shaped pod for the deceased that offers an alternative to traditional burial methods. The body of the deceased is placed in a fetal position, inside a container made from biodegradable material, before the pod is buried in the earth. It is a symbolic way to return the body to the earth, exiting it in the same position as we’ve entered. Once planted, the tree is secured with a GPS tracker so that relatives of the deceased person can find the tree with ease.

Bob Hendrikx, a researcher at TU Delft, created ‘Living Cocoon’. A coffin made from mycelium helps bodies decompose faster while improving the surrounding soil. The ‘Living Cocoon’ is made from mushroom mycelium. It actively contributes to the body’s composting process after death and simultaneously removes toxic substances from the earth-creating better circumstances for new plants to grow.

Inventive sorrow

After laying the body to rest, mourning follows. This hugely personal period has seen its own technological advances over time. For example, Etsuko Ichihara’s project ‘The Digital Shaman Project’. It tries to ease the grieving process using robots that are wearing 3D-printed faces of your loved ones that passed away. The robots are programmed to imitate a specific person’s speech, behavior, and physical characteristics. The idea behind this project is to propose a new form of the funeral in which robots spend 49 days after a person’s death with the members of their family. After 49 days, the robot says goodbye to the family members and close friends and thereby closes the grieving period. These 49 days refer to the Buddhist funeral rite. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and this process needs 49 days to travel from one life to the next.

Eugenia Kuyda is an enterprising young entrepreneur who immortalized her deceased friend, Roman Mazurenko, by training a neural net on his text messages to produce ‘Roman Bot’. She struggled whether or not she was doing the right thing by bringing him back this way. But ever since Mazurenko’s death, Kuyda wanted one more chance to speak with him. Hundreds of people tried to speak with the bot at least once, and after reading the logs, Kuyda noticed that people tended to be more truthful when speaking with the deceased. It turned out that the Roman Bot’s primary role was to listen rather than to talk. It seemed that most texts were about love or telling him something they never had time to tell him. The Roman Bot created a place where they could tell, even though it wasn’t a real human.

So, if we check back in with the question stated in the introduction there is no clear answer if we’re closer to accepting death as part of life nor working towards a life with no limits. It seems as though for us mere humans, letting go is the true obstacle and one, we creatively try to overcome.