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How we live with death in the city

"In dense cities, death is both personal and infrastructural"

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Taking a divergent approach and aware of our location in NY, we chose to expand "end-of-life" and explore the impact of death in dense cities. We invited Karla Rothstein from Death Lab, Columbia University, to share the work of her group on the impact of death in cities in our first story telling event. 

About Death Lab:

"Based at Columbia University GSAPP, the DeathLab is a trans-disciplinary research and design space focused on reconceiving how we live with death in the metropolis.

DeathLab makes it possible for dynamic minds to come together to engage the complex challenges of our individual and collective mortality.

We are changing how people think about death.

At the core of DeathLab is a team of leading researchers, scholars, experts, and designers from fields that enable us to engage both intimate and infrastructural urban concerns.

Our ambition is to develop design strategies that can be prototyped, built, and experienced by the public. We are dedicated to plausible possibility."

In her presentation (more details on the Death Lab website), Karla highlighted:

- Evolution of the place of death in cities: People in cities use to be close to their death and cemeteries were public green spaces, but slowly cemeteries (in part by lack of space) have been moved out of the cities.

- Logistical constraints: "Given rapidly depleting cemetery space, increasing urban populations, and the acute environmental toll of both burial and cremation, alternative funerary practices are inevitable, yet currently unresolved. Our cities require new mortuary options which respond to the constraints of ecology, time, and limited burial space."

- Environmental consequences: Earthen burial and cremation have immense impacts on our environment. For example, "each year, cemeteries across the United States bury approximately 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, risking groundwater and soil leaching. "  ( Cremation has also an environmental impact: "To fully incinerate a human body to bone and ash fragments, the retort must be heated to between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and maintained at this level for between 45 and 90 minutes. - See more at:"  (on the impact of cremation in India:

- Cultural ethos: Funerary rituals vary across cultures, yet share commonalities in events and rhythm. 

The 20 participants of the NYC OpenIDEO chapter Story Telling event all enjoyed the talk. This helped them see some of the infrastuctural and cultural aspects of death that they had not thought of.

Reflecting on the challenge brief which states "Each year around 55 million people  worldwide and over 2.5 million in the United States face the end-of-life", and taking into account the growth of cities, it seems relevant to explore the "end-of-life" from this perspective of society and infrastructure. It suggests that we can look at this challenge from various angles: upstream as suggested by Aaron in his post "What happens after 40", or downstream as proposed by the Death Lab.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

- How to think "after" end-of-life and its impact on our society and infrastructure? In other words "how cities accommodate the mortal remains of their residents."
- How to rethink / redesign some of our cultural practices about death?

If you participated in an End of Life Storytelling Event, tell us which Chapter or city you came from:

NYC OpenIDEO Chapter


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