Scene from the American drama television series “Six Feet Under” that depicts the lives of the Fisher family,
who run a funeral home in Los Angeles, 2001-2005, ©HBO

After Life Urbanism
By Bernd Upmeyer

After having scrutinized thoroughly how architecture and cities are influenced by societies that grow increasingly older due to declining fertility rates and rising life expectancy, in our previous MONU #30 entitled “Late Life Urbanism”, we aim with the upcoming issue to move forward in time to the “After Life” and investigate how mortality impacts cities and buildings. In that sense, there is a certain connection and continuation between this new issue and the last one. However, the new topic – that we call “After Life Urbanism” – comprises many different facets that need to be discussed which were not part of “Late Life Urbanism” and are related to recent changes in our society that are related to death; first of all spatial aspects, but cultural, social, environmental, technological and last but not least economic ones too.

It has been speculated that, in the coming decades, as baby-boomers hit old age, the annual death rate in America will climb from around 8 per 1,000 people today, to 10 by 2050, from 10 to 14 in Italy and from 9 to 13 in Spain. Consequently, the city-spaces for cemeteries that already cover vast amounts of space will grow accordingly. This will lead to many new urban challenges and limitations such as the creation of affordable housing or the construction of dense and compact cities, to name just a few. Although more green spaces in cities can certainly contribute to a higher quality of life, many cemeteries are just not designed to function as parks and recreational areas. There are already, of course, great examples of beautiful cemeteries that are much more than pragmatic rows of graves; one might think of Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, for instance. But we believe more still needs to be explored when it comes to the design of cemeteries and places for the remains of the dead in general.

We would like to discuss cultural aspects of “After Life Urbanism” since there is currently a change in the demands and concerns of the bereaved, partly driven by the decline of religion and broader shifts in attitudes to death and dying. Fewer people seem to be ready to cede their dead to an off-the-shelf burial and prefer shrouds and woodland burials to coffins and graveyards. Many people are today much less docile than in the past, demanding higher quality from undertakers and falling less often for tourist-trap-like package deals, making it much more difficult for companies to offer ludicrous mark-ups on things such as coffins or to sell services that are mostly unnecessary. Such shifts in the demands will eventually impact cities too, since more diverse areas and places are needed to cater to those new requirements. What these changes look like and what they may mean for cities is one of the pressing questions of this new issue of MONU.

Social change is happening too. In some parts of the world the contemporary undertaker’s job appears to be progressively more a form of event planning. Ever more people seem to require things such as karaoke or pizza delivery, and hire officiants that perform a “life celebration” that can take place at a local hotel rather than in a chapel, which challenges the way we use and design buildings and spaces for ceremonies in cities. Others even might wish to shoot ashes into the sky with fireworks, or create other particular events where the bereaved can celebrate the great life of the deceased, to honour and thank people creating events that make dying as important as giving birth as Rachel Marlene Kauder demanded in her contribution “A Knock on the Door” in MONU #30. Other social alterations come about, for example, due the fact that people and families live and move ever further apart, and are gradually more mobile, identifying with more than one locality, which tests the idea of permanent locations for graves and the organization of gravesites on the whole.

And ever since there is a tendency for people to choose cremation (which is cheaper) over burial, which allows the disposal of the body without fuss, and kept separate from the commemoration of the life lost, dead people produce increasingly more CO2, which is bad for the environment. Although cremation appears less wasteful, the burning of bodies takes a lot of energy and a conventional gas-fired crematorium blasts around 320kg of carbon into the atmosphere per body, which is the equivalent of a 20-hour car journey. All these things need to be taken into account when thinking about “After Life Urbanism”. However, cremations mean also that less space is occupied in the city, which can be a positive for the environment. Luckily enough there is also another tendency: people increasingly consider “green” burials, with no embalming and biodegradable caskets, and seem to be less and less interested in putting their loved ones under the ground in a concrete vault, in a plastic-sealed casket, and with the body pumped full of chemicals. “Green”, “water”, or “flameless” cremations, where bodies are dissolved in an alkaline solution, might offer new possibilities as well.

Technology is altering the way we deal with death too. Companies such as Amazon, Alibaba, and Walmart apparently started selling a range of coffins and urns online, which contests the way funerals are organized. Technology leads also to better informed people that can use online reviews to compare and choose the best fitting services. Social media has its impacts too. Mourners use, for example, live-stream funerals enabling virtual attendance. Tribute and funeral videos, often online, are ever more popular as are virtual candles on the internet. Some social media sites such as Facebook seem to offer even so-called “Memorialised Accounts” to clarify the status of deceased users. Profiles are kept up and running for years after a user dies. What all of these technological innovations mean for our cities we would like to find out.

Due to the fact that the funeral trade has one of the most basic business advantages – inexhaustible demand – dying is also big business. Because every minute more than 100 people die, most of these deaths bring not just grief to some, but also profit to others. And until now the dead-body business was seen as highly predictable, uncorrelated with other industries, inflation-linked, low-risk and high-margin, but due to the many recent changes, it remains to be seen whether this continues in the future. Thus, the profession of the undertaker and his functioning within cities is being challenged. What kind of urban consequences this has we would like to investigate as well with this new issue of MONU.

Title: After Life Urbanism
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: May 2019
Type: Call for Submissions, MONU #31
Publications: MONU – Magazine on Urbanism
Publisher: Board Publishers
Location: Rotterdam, The Netherlands