A New Take on Death and Dying

In “The Future of the Corpse,” Karla Rothstein and Christina Staudt review the spectrum of death care rituals and offer ideas for change.

Eve Glasberg
April 11, 2022

Around the globe, roughly 165,000 people die every day. The Neanderthals were the first human species to bury their dead, entombing them with stone tools, animal bones, and other artifacts in shallow graves.

The Future of the Corpse: Changing Ecologies of Death and Disposition, edited by architect and GSAPP Professor Karla Rothstein, founder and director of the GSAPP DeathLAB, and Christina Staudt, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Death, reviews the spectrum of death.

American society today is in a pivotal period for reimagining end-of-life care, funerary services, human disposition methods, memorializing, and mourning. The book’s editors and contributors outline the past, present, and future of death care rituals, pointing to promising new practices and projects that better integrate the dying and dead with the living, and create positive change that supports sustainable stewardship of the environment.

Rothstein and Staudt discuss the book with Columbia News, as well as what it was like to collaborate on the volume, and who they would invite to a joint party.

Q. What was the impetus behind this book?

Karla Rothstein: After discovering my graduate architectural design studio syllabi online a decade ago, Christina invited me to present to and then join the University Seminar on Death. In 2016 the seminar and GSAPP DeathLAB jointly organized a daylong colloquium—Designing for Life and Death—which brought academics and industry stakeholders together to probe New York City’s relationship with death, corpse disposition, and the potential for new forms and civic-sacred space. This book contains chapters by many of the colloquium’s interdisciplinary panelists, sharing their expertise on the complex and evolving aspects of dying, death, and remembrance.

Christina Staudt: The colloquium produced so many substantive and thoughtful ideas that we felt compelled to bring the content to a larger audience in a comprehensive volume on postmortem issues.

The Future of the Corpse, edited by Karla Rothstein and Christina Staudt, Columbia University

Q. What are some of the innovative projects and practices in the book that better integrate the dying and dead with the living, and create positive change supporting sustainable stewardship of the environment?

KR: Many cemeteries across the globe are facing dire limits on burial space. Cemeteries are cultural assets and provide crucial open space in dense cities, but the American expectation of a burial plot in perpetuity for each individual is at odds with the density and spatial limits of urbanity. The resource consumption of prevailing casketing and cremation practices are also considered wasteful by those prioritizing ecological impact.

Cemeteries can serve their current communities through new, sustainable forms of corpse disposition that engage the body biologically, and contribute to enduring civic-sacred spaces supporting grief and remembrance. We and others are developing mortuary options that are gentle on the earth while also remaining proximate to where we live.

CS: A growing rejection of embalmment and resource-intensive coffins among environmentally conscious families parallels a movement toward direct disposition—i.e., the body is moved from the deathbed directly to the burial site. More time is spent with the deceased at the site of death—where the family washes and cares for the body—rather than having the corpse whisked away to a funeral home. Individualized rituals and services that reflect the character of the deceased, often planned in advance with family and loved ones, occur by the deathbed and the place of final disposition. Advocates of green burial are leading the way.

Q. How has COVID accelerated and highlighted the need to address the changing death-care landscape?

KR: Never before in our lifetimes has death been so present. Society has a desperate need for spaces of healing—from the traumas of COVID, as well as other forms of grief and grievances, including confronting and repairing racial, environmental, and economic injustices. Civil and dignified contexts are crucial to societal care. A sense of community and ritual are important scaffolds around life’s transitions, and we need options and practices commensurate with current individual values and planetary priorities. Relative to just a decade ago, the public interest and willingness to engage in discussions of death and disposition are truly remarkable.

CS: The sheer volume of pandemic fatalities alone would have forced healthcare industries and the funerary complex (funeral directors, crematories, and cemeteries) to retool their practices, but the necessity to isolate because of COVID has been a stronger impetus to change. Telemedicine, deathbed goodbyes on Facebook, Zoom funeral planning, livestreaming and recording of funerary services, and online memorializing have all advanced exponentially, and are here to stay.

The social inequities of the pandemic, with much higher death rates for the poor and minorities, has added urgency to our need to address systemic change.

Q. What was it like to produce a book together? 

KR: We both have high standards, and we’ve earned each other’s trust and respect. We have different styles: We’re both pragmatic idealists, but Christina is perhaps more straightforward, and I sometimes tend toward the poetic. We complement one another well.

CS: The collaborative process was pleasantly smooth. Karla and I hardly ever disagreed. Rather than feeling I was compromising my position in discussions about the book, I found that our dialogues gave me new insights and expanded perspectives.

Q. Have you read any books lately that you would recommend, and why?

CS: In Notes on Grief, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her experience after the death of her father during the pandemic. She allows her pain and reactions to emerge on the page with compelling power. Her suffering, questioning, search for meaning, and desire to honor her deceased father touch on themes common in bereavement—the bodily sensation of grief, the failure and support of rituals, the need for time and space alone and for community. Her dual project of memorializing and finding a way to live with grief is a gift to the reader.

KR: I would add Elizabeth Kolbert’s recently published Under a White Sky. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a continuation of her excellent research and writing on the impacts we humans have wrought on the planet, and I reference her earlier The Sixth Extinction regularly. Taking responsibility for the consequences connected to our actions is a timeless ethical imperative.

Q. You're both hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

CS: With no restrictions to the invitation list, I will aim high: It would be a treat to reunite the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, so they can continue their charming lunch banter, recounted in their The Book of Joy— Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. As a foil to these two “mischievous” (as they describe themselves in the book), male faith leaders, I will invite a female atheist who can match their wit, perhaps the Barnard graduate Zora Neale Hurston, or maybe the early women’s rights leader, Ernestine Rose, said to possess “a rare sense of humor.”

We may end up touching on postmortem issues directly, but no matter where the talk leads, mortality remains foundational to human life and is never fully absent.

KR: My days are overflowing with teaching, research, and the building projects of my architecture practice, so I would be thrilled to participate in this exceptional evening!

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