‘What happens after we die?’ is a question which has been around as long as mankind and the one thing we know for sure is the slow process of decomposition our mortal remains will undergo.
Requiem for A Body – a design fiction by Koby Barhard and Soomi Park – is one of the projects Peut-Porter has enjoyed to be a part of: focussing on the myth of death the two designers came up with a scenario in which the decomposition of the dead human body would translate into sound. Suggesting musical instruments, a series of devices were developed which would react to the various powers at work in a dead body: the changes in temperature, variation in resonances and the gas produced by bacteria would result in vocal, wind, string and tempo sounds.
Facing the many possibilities of prolonging one’s life with the help of emerging technologies, Requiem for a Body questions cultural habits and notions related to death – bravely pointing out they might be subject to change in the future, with immortality being the ultimate and surely frightening ideal.
While societies always wondered what ‘life’ after death might be like, memories of our loved ones have so far endured in form of graves, pictures and artefacts. Today, various alternative scenarios of burying are offered and the makers of social networks such as deadsoci.al seem to think it’s time for a change.
While the mediums we use for representation after death have little in common with the physical matter we inhabit during our earthly existence, it also seems common sense to separate spirit and body as two entities – one that will endure whilst the other might rot away. Not so in Requiem for a Body: the body translates directly into the artefact of representation (the sound), turning the physical into the spiritual.
While death is a feared event in many cultures and one we often try to blank out when thinking about the future, the compensation of the fear is present in everyday items and many cultures have a very defined idea of what to wear when buried. A friend once told me of the bespoke dress and suit her grandparents got made feeling their time had come.
I had a rather joyful experience of death when visiting Sulawesi’s Toraja – an Indonesian ethnic group celebrating funerals in an extensive manner amongst whom death has a higher meaning then birth itself. Thus their funerals are spectacular social events and whole villages are built in order to accommodate the hundreds of visitors attending the feast that lasts several days. In order to prepare and afford the funeral, it is common to hold the ceremony only years after a person dies. While some of the wealthy families bury their deceased in cliffs which are carved out to fit the coffin, the villages usually have a person producing dolls resembling the buried which are placed at the burial site. Understanding death as an ongoing process rather then as an abrupt event, the Toraja redress and wash the buried bodies once a year and seem fearlessly excited when talking of death.
While they understand death as a span of time, they also differentiate various kinds of death: if a child dies either before birth or before having his first teeth, the Toraja follow an alternative procedure as the child is not yet considered to have fully arrived in the world. In this instance, compartments are carved into distinctive trees, offering a burial site for their mortal remains. The tree will then close this wound and take the baby back into the cycle of life.
Coming into the world and leaving the world are temporal fractions just as life itself.
Both, Requiem for a Body as well as the traditions of the Toraja suggest to consider death in a similar way we consider life – a process. Doesn’t a following timespan or process – the afterlife – then seem plausible? If nothing else, the comfort of the idea might protect us from Frankenstein scenarios such as a head-transplant and other lunacies we have yet to expect.