Bringing Circularity to Deathcare

Arthur van Havre
Caroline Dignes

This project reimagined future death care services through as circular economy lens. The project aimed to address: 1. the environmental impact of traditional death care services, and 2. the need for a restorative space for navigating grief and healing process. I worked with fellow master in design engineering candidates, Arthur van Havre and Caroline Dignes. The project was shortlisted in the iF Design Student Awards in 2023 (top 300 of over 7000 global submissions). 

According to the Green Burial Council, the American funerary industry consumes 20 million board feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of formaldehyde, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete annually. A single flame cremation produces up to 600 pounds of carbon dioxide. The Cremation Association of North America reports that water cremation reduces carbon emissions by 90% and results in 30% more ash that is whiter than the ash produced by flame cremation.

We developed this circular death care service as a closed-loop system that combined two proven technologies, alkaline hydrolysis (water cremation) and anaerobic digestion, to sustainably process human remains. The physical space also served as a site of respite to honor the life of the loved one passed. We imagined the site of water cremation could coexist with the natural environment in various contexts – urban, shoreline, peri-urban, and areas of higher elevation.

The system was designed to be inclusive of all body types and is faith agnostic. At our sites of respite and restoration, family members are invited to partake in a final goodbye as the body is gently lowered into the water cremation vessel, our redesigned alkaline hydrolysis pod. Family members may include organic mementos before the pod is closed and have the possibility of conducting ceremonies or celebrations during the organic reduction process. At the end of the water cremation process, all that remains are white bones and a DNA-free nutrient-rich liquid. Loved ones may opt to receive either the whole bones or ashes.

Current water cremation providers release the liquid into the sewage system. Instead of wasting this liquid, our circular solution's bi-level system leverages this output from water cremation (Level 1) as the input for the anaerobic digestion phase (Level 2). In an oxygen-free environment, an ecosystem of microorganisms uses this input to produce biogas, a source of renewable electricity. All that remains is an EPA Grade-A nutrient-rich compost safe for use in horticulture. Families may choose how to donate the renewable energy and regenerative soil to nurture future generations in ways that most resonate with them.