Why you should care

It’s a striking, eco-friendly way to create life from death.

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We know that life is temporary, and people don’t like to think about their passing, especially if that means being laid to rest in a graveyard, complete with creepy cobwebbed stones and wilting flowers. Surely there must be a better alternative for those who prefer a more traditional burial, but with a nicer aesthetic. That challenge dogged Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel for a decade. Fascinated with the “legacy the objects we design leave after us,” they wanted to turn something that’s culturally uncomfortable — a coffin — into something that celebrates life.

What they came up with: egg-shaped burial pods that help to create a memory forest. The Capsula Mundi is a full-body-size capsule that the deceased is curled into, fetuslike. After burial, a tree is planted on top, and the biodegradable pod eventually helps feed it with nutrients. People choose the tree type prior to their death, in a quasi circle-of-life approach, and the memory forest is intended to give and celebrate life. “Our main goal has been to sensitize people about the unbearable way the modern culture is dealing with death,” they write via email. But the big idea is eco-friendliness, remaining part of the world in death and contributing to the birth of a forest, creating oxygen and promoting life.

In principle this is something that U.S. Green Burial Council officer Joe Sehee wants. He’s been trying to establish worldwide verifiable standards for green burials for the last 15 years. But it’s a highly regulated industry that is “emotionally sensitive,” making it difficult to innovate, he says. And while he likes the Capsula Mundi design, he doesn’t see it as a practical solution in the Western world, given the infrastructure needed to make it a reality: transport, lowering devices, tree stewardship, land permits. But even with those provisos, he says, “if it gets people’s attention and starts a conversation that’s a tremendous service.”

Sehee points to other eco-friendly “sexy burial methods” like the Bios Urn (human –> tree) the Urban Death project (human –> compost) and Promession (human blasted by nitrogen) that aren’t necessarily feasible, but promote green discussion. Feasibility is something that Citelli and Bretzel struggle with: Italian law requires coffins to use wood, and won’t accept their pods. Not all countries have this restriction, but all cemeteries have their own laws and permissions to contend with.

So don’t plan on your personal after-death contribution to a memory forest just yet. For now, the pods remain a “design project,” and have been showcased at art exhibitions. They haven’t been used with a body, and there are no details about proposed cost or production. Citelli and Bretzel are working on a mini version for cremated ashes that they hope to present by 2016.

Whether or not our future will be full of forests, some final words from Sehee: “We want to befriend death, and this is a natural step — the devil is in the details.”

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