Assessing its subject matter or purview
In an attempt to redesign future urban cemeteries that integrate the virtual realm of memory with the physical realm of memory, this precedent project is inspired by neuroscientist David Eagleman’s statement:
“There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
The speculative design, ‘You Only Live Thrice’ attempts to deal with this specific period between the second and third death, when people virtually mention the name of the deceased. The design uses Google Alerts or a similar software to monitor the internet for any mention of the deceased online. Small LED light-buds surround each grave in clusters with varying sized bulbs that interact with the Google Alert system. Once alerted, the ambient lighting system is activated to provide a visceral and visual experience of the data. Not only does it engage physical senses, but it serves to unite the multiple forms of recollection, existing between the second and third deaths to unite forms of virtual and physical memory communication (DesignBoom, 2013).
Underlying epistemology and methodology
This precedent’s methodology conceives of cemeteries as vital public green spaces, and does not attempt to create a vertical infrastructure design based on population or spatial constraints. Although it approaches the integration of virtual and physical with a very operationalized interpretation of internet data [i.e, names and searches = memory], the approach is a sort of “widgetization” relationship between virtual/physical memorial interfaces obscured by lights.
Despite the design methods integrating technology into the built structures of a space, the use of light seeks to conceive of death as being part of multiple systems at work similarly to Columbia University’s Death Lab research. Within the literature reviewing alternative methods of burial, decomposing-dead matter offers a potential avenue to power life. Similarly, harnessing decomposition energy to power life recognizes the basic rule of chemistry in which energy is neither created nor destroyed, simply transferred. This design pays homage to the circular nature of death + birth, but it is limited in its physical capacity to do so. (Rather than using decomposing energy as Columbia’s Death Lab is researching, this design uses artificial LED lighting powered by solar voltaic cells). Although this design does not power the lights through bacterial decomposition, it is a fascinating way to interpret death as a sequence within a continuous cycle. This methodology elevates the personal human experience through its use of activated lights to temporally engage the continued-life of the deceased within virtual mentions. But since this project also ultimately peaks its light to eventually go dark, there is a somber understanding that the light mirrors the way a sound would travel, ultimately drifting into oblivion. Ultimately, the light acts as symbol of the sound for someone’s last mention.
How its format or mode of execution serves, or fails to serve, its purposes
This precedent struck me due to its integration of sensory experiences and ability to unite virtual and physical spaces. Instead of redesigning the entire space, this interpretation of urban cemeteries protects the current zoning and spatial uses. It does not diminish historic practices or undermine historic architectural preservation within headstone symbolism; rather, it offers family members of the deceased opportunities to engage with their virtual afterlife within this physical space reserved for memory.
Its weaknesses or unexplored critical dimensions.
Despite a reliance on physical infrastructure and technology, the use of these “intelligent” features does not impinge upon the scope of the natural environment. The use of ambient lighting echoes nature’s own brilliance (and innate natural intelligence). In this way, the design is smartly integrated or embedded into the environment, while maintaining the sort of ethereal ambience that traditional cemeteries employ and provide. Despite this interesting integration of technology, the fact that technology is used at all within this process fails to address the hidden costs of this design. Practically, there would be a reliance on maintenance costs which may fail to create permanent solutions to this permanent space. It fails to repurpose existing infrastructure, increasing a demand and creating a reliance upon fiber-optic networks that may require unsustainable amounts of energy to practically integrate into the cloud’s functions. Similarly, this design places preference on those already well-known in real-life and would thus continue to live virtually by physically outshining their deceased peers even into death. Although this experience mirrors that of life, it is difficult to apply equitably and justly even though death is the ultimate equalizer. Maybe that is what it seeks to do, but as a serious contender for urban cemetery futures, this function is limiting.