Over the next two weeks on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Blog, students from an interdisciplinary graduate-level course on the Triennial taught by the Triennial curatorial team blog their impressions and inspirations of the current exhibition,‘Why Design Now?’.

The Capsula Mundi coffin is designed to allow a body to decompose naturally and provide nourishment for a tree planted above it.

When a family member dies, most Americans are not ready to consider anything along the lines of a Tibetan sky burial, where a body is abandoned on a mountaintop for vultures to pick clean. It may be the ultimate recycling, but it’s a little harsh. Yet in the United States alone, more than 93,000 tons of metal and 30 million board feet of hardwood are buried along with the dead each year. Besides the waste of resources, a body sealed inside a metal casket in a concrete vault will never decompose, lingering instead in a Purgatory of advanced putrefaction.

Capsula Mundi by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, offers an eco-friendly solution. Like the Return to Sender casket by New Zealander Greg Holdsworth (currently on display in the National Design Triennial 2010), its manufacture requires no additional use of plastics or metal. The deceased, placed in a fetal position inside the biodegradable coffin made of cornstarch plastic, is buried like a seed into the soil and a tree is planted at the gravesite. Over time, the cemetery transforms into a memorial forest.

Nadine Jarvis’s birdfeeder, part of her memento mori series, allows birds to scatter cremated ashes mixed with seeds in the molded beeswax.


Although cremation poses its own environmental hazards by releasing toxins into the atmosphere, it’s still greener than most burial methods. British product designer Nadine Jarvis’s bird-feeder is molded from seeds, beeswax, and human ashes. As the birds peck at the food, the urn disintegrates and scatters the ashes. A gentler interpretation of sky burials, the feeder employs cheerful songbirds, not greedy scavengers, to speed the return of the dead to nature. As designers continue to explore sustainable options for the disposition of human remains, they are sure to find other solutions that are not literally for the birds.

Angela Riechers
School of Visual Arts Design Criticism MFA program

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