Tiles for the dead

ARCHITECTURE, SPIRITUALITY

The bus leaves San José (capital of Costa Rica) and heads to Playa Hermosa. We stop a little while next to a cemetery. I look out of the window and discover a pretty unexpected landscape.

(Photo credit: Mary Farmer)

The cemetery is populated with white tiled tombs. White kitchen tile, or bathroom tile, with black joints (-btw: very trendy in interior design right now).

The immaculate white tiles give a strange hygienist atmosphere to the place. I can not help but think about the installation « La Maison » by Jean-Pierre Raynaud that I had seen in 1993 at the CAPC in Bordeaux. I was only 8 years old, but I remember it had trully fascinated me. The artist had covered the inside of his house in La Celle-Saint-Cloud with white tiles. He locked himself in for several years. Then decided to destroy it completely, putting it in pieces in small metal buckets.

jean-pierre-raynaud_web.jpg« La Maison », Jean-Pierre Raynaud

I read on Wikipedia that Jean-Pierre Raynaud had a degree in Horticulture … This is the kind of coincidences I like. I go on into my dreaming about the white tiled tombs. They could also be emergent parts of the « Continuous Monument » imagined by Superstudio, taking shape in Costa Rica… Yes, amen.

Isla Cabuya, an island cemetery

A few weeks later, I am exploring the Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific coast. Someone tells me about Cabuya island which a cemetery. It is just 5 miles away. Perfect, I am going. It will only take …. 25 minutes by bus (!) The road are pretty thin and winding here, and the trees along are giants.

Cabuya Island is the only island being used as a cemetery in Costa Rica. Some rumors say it might have been a pre-Columbian burial site.

fresque-cimetiere_web.jpg

The tide is at the lowest when I arrive. The water has retreated all around the island, opening a wide path of stones and shells. Fishing boats are stranding in the heat, vultures are watching.

cabuyal-island_web.jpg

In the midst of giant succulents, a white-masonry arch rises between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky. I totally feel like in a Tarantino’s movie.

cimetiere-entrance_web.jpg

The graves rest in the shade of palm trees and banana trees. Their tiles almost seem to keep them cool … The silhouettes of different foliage are outlined on the pale blue, brown, water green and white tiles.

The atmosphere is anything but morbid. Everything is very peaceful, welcoming and bright. It feels halfway between a beach and a public garden … A family is taking a walk, children are playing. I sit to picnic between the graves.

more-tombes_web

Once surrounded by the sea, this island must feel very far away from everything… I whisper to myself « Bury me here. » Yes, under the palm trees, that would be my jam. 

cimetiere_under-the-palms

Other graves are made of natural materials: sand, shells, dried palm branches. Some are even embellished with painted pebbles or even an airplane propeller.

Upcycling also has some future in cemeteries.

tombe-coquillage_web.jpg

A sustainable death

I discovered Caitlin Doughty, aka: the coolest and most knowledgeable undertaker in the funeral industry business. I really recommend you to watch her TED Talk. With no taboo, she triggers question the environmental impact of our contemporary mortuary practices. And she proposes quite radical alternatives.

« What if we re-designed the funeral industry for an eco-friendly death? » 

I learn that in Costa Rica embalming is very little practiced because too expensive. It is not in the customs to embalm the dead. Whereas in Western countries, it’s almost unavoidable.

Embalming is replacing the body’s blood with formaldehyde (which is a carcinogenic chemical). This chemical helps preserve the appearance of the body. It avoids the natural decomposition and putrefaction (which is the common end of all organic life on our planet.) Then we bury into a concrete grave a coffin made of metal or wood, thus ultimately participating to the insane waste of our resources. Note that there will never be a single worm fed with bodies buried like that…

In short, it’s pretty far away from open-sky burials as practiced in Tibet. « Sky burial » is a funeral practice that consists in offering the dead body to eat by vultures. (Caitlin Doughty says, « I’ve been eating animals all my life, I can let them take a revenge!« ) What if we could feed a little bit the planet, rather than pollute it a last time when we die. For dust you are (or compost) and to the dust you will go back.

With the « Order of the Good Death » movement, Caitlin Doughty promotes « conservation cemeteries. » You can find some in the United States, Canada and England. There are few or no stelae. The bodies are directly buried in the ground. They decompose naturally and nourish the soil. Burying bodies on a land helps protect it against future constructions. Instead, we can recreate local ecosystems, which are habitats for biodiversity as well public spaces for humans.

tombe-naturelle_web.jpg(Read the French article)

More sustainable ways of living inevitably imply more sustainable ways of dying. What is exciting is that we have a great freedom to imagine other alternatives, and to invent the new rituals and places that will go with it! (… funerary designer has just jumped in my « dream jobs’ list »)

More:

-Caitlin Doughty: Order of the good deathWelcome to your mortality 

-A documentary about green burial: « A will for the woods »

Soil instead of ashes : Human Composting Is About To Become Legal In Washington State

-My article: « Sound trance on San Pedro »

-My article: « 1 month without internet, fridge or cellphone » 

-My article: « My neighbor Arenal volcano »

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