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Design in Death: How We Craft Our Rituals for the Departed

By Published on . 2

How might a ghost money burner improve by design?

On many occasions when I've traveled back to Taiwan, I've accompanied my parents to visit my grandparents' graves. Each year, on about four different occasions including the Chinese New Year (which was just celebrated Feb 14, 2010), Taiwanese people visit the deceased to offer food, prayer, incense, and money. We wait until the lit incense has burned halfway, then we start to burn bundles of ghost money. My father asks me if I will burn ghost money for him when he passes away. I tell him that if I can burn him one ghost check it may be more convenient. My brother interjects, "It wouldn't be as secure, you don't know what the exchange rate is like up there." When we've concluded our Western Union® ritual with my father's parents, we make our way to the Buddhist monastery where my mother's parents' ashes are kept. We don't burn ghost money here. Instead we offer real money to the monastery on their behalf, and trust the monks to burn the ghost money later on. We then take a seat with strangers whose relatives also rest in the crematorium, and eat a vegetarian lunch prepared by the monks together.

Though in modern times the two most common burials are by interment or cremation, funeral rites differ greatly by country and culture, even by family. Burials that are more extravagant and extraordinary have been recorded in history, and some of these traditions continue today. I've visited many a memorial and tomb in my travels, and though I think that many of these sites are true architectural marvels (the Pyramids come to mind), it seems to me that there is great resistance to erasing our trace on earth. Though most people won't get a burial with a terracotta army, dying is a multi-billion dollar industry, and you can get as fancy or go as frugal as you like.

Seeyou Gravestone. Designed by Akos Maurer Klimes and Peter Kucsera for Hungarian concrete company Ivanka

My personal preference would be to pass on without leaving behind an artificial artifact. I saw one installation years ago that I thought was rather beautiful. The idea was that the person would be enveloped in a seed-shape made of potato starch, and a tree would be planted atop during burial.

Capsula Mundi project

Italian Designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel's project Capsula Mundi was first shown in installations in Europe in 2004. Their hope was that this method would transform traditional concrete-heavy memorial parks to forest sanctuaries. Unfortunately, Italian Law doesn't allow for their proposed type of burial, and it is not clear on their website, whether or not any progress has been made in recent years.

My mother tells me that in coming Chinese New Years, I must remember to eat 'guei', a rice cake dish, eaten for prosperity and fortune, "You must not forget all the traditions of your ancestors," she says. I watched the paper burn in the brick enclosure that was built just for these four annual ghost money burns, and though I didn't think that my parents actually believed that we were wiring funds to our grandparents, we continued to fold and burn the paper, until the last bundle was finished. We carry out this ritual year after year, just to maintain a connection, to remember to remember.



Ivy Chuang is the founder and design director of Knoend, a San Francisco-based studio with sustainability and innovation at its core. She is a nomad, surfer, cook and occasional artist.
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