Burial traditions are evolving, designers see call to action

Ramp entrance

Taylor Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life. Rendering provided by Johnson.

AMES, Iowa — Designers are responding to changing beliefs and traditions surrounding funerals and burials in the United States.

One of those designers is Lee Cagley, professor of interior design and chair of the department at Iowa State University. Cagley and seven interior design graduate students are examining cemeteries, funeral homes, mortuaries and interment practices in the American Southwest this semester in a studio called “Dearly Departed.”

By their final review this week, each student designed a unique, never-before-seen space for the future of burial.

The National Funeral Directors Association reported this year that more and more Americans favor cremation over traditional burials. This year, the cremation rate is projected to be 54.8 percent and the burial rate 39 percent. By 2040, they expect the gap will widen to 78.7 percent cremation and 15.7 percent burial.

“The problem is that from the day of the last interment in a cemetery, standard practice in the industry is that the cemetery has to be maintained as is 200 years forward,” Cagley said.

Americans typically expect a grassy area when they think of a cemetery – but that requires water bills that can skyrocket to thousands of dollars a month. And with increasing numbers of droughts and growing effects of climate change, Cagley says this practice is not sustainable.

“If we assume that many people will be cremated, then what does the interior of a columbarium look like? And what does the landscape look like so it’s attractive enough for a family to bury their loved one?” Cagley said.

The assignment: Design a non-denominational, multi-functional structure in an 80,000-square-foot space in an existing mortuary. The space needs to feel dignified and spiritual while also serving as a space to celebrate the life of the person who died.

“Today’s generations want celebrations of life, not mourning,” Cagley said. “And that’s a challenge. They need to create a space where both live and dead people feel comfortable together. The living can be out of place in a mausoleum, and the dead can be out of place in a home. We need to design an emotional experience outward.”

Designing for funerals of the future

Ahmed Elsherif, graduate student in interior design from Egypt, designed that kind of space by blending boundaries. His building grew from a conversation he had with Cagley about the purpose of visitations, a practice with which he was unfamiliar.

Cagley explained it this way: “A visitation is like hello to the deceased; a funeral is like goodbye.”

Elsherif’s proposal incorporates this philosophy, creating an interactive space where people can gather in “the space in between the living world and the person who has died.”

“It is not just a spatial configuration, but a behavioral one as well,” Elsherif said.

Taylor Johnson, graduate student in interior design from Mason City, was inspired by the High Line in New York City, a space she frequented while living there and working in fashion design. The park is a former subway track that was renovated into a long, narrow park, with walking paths, vegetation and seating.

Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life.

“Walking up the incline would be like going through the grieving process, moving from grieving to healing to celebrating that person’s life,” she said. “Too many of these places are designed to make you feel like you want to leave as fast as you can.”

Trevor Kliever, graduate student in interior design from Le Mars, also incorporated that sentiment into his design, creating a space where family and friends can stay and reminisce.

His three-story “library” includes niches on each level to inter cremains. Outside would be a park featuring various burial options, alongside vegetation native to the region.

“Everyone thinks of the concept of yin and yang as separate entities,” he said. “My design takes opposing things and brings them together.”

The students’ work and their research this semester shows people’s widely divergent views about death, funerals and burials.

“Interior design needs to step up to the plate and be forward-thinking,” Cagley said. “The industry is looking at more forward-thinking ideas. Funeral homes were designed for my parents’ generation, and they haven’t been re-examined since. What is being redesigned now is done for my generation — and unfortunately, it’s already two generations behind.”