Eilidh McEwan, Interior Design

Highly Commended, Sustainability Degree Show Prize 2021

For my final project in third year I designed a traditional funeral home however due to COVID this project was cut short and I was left feeling uninspired to continue it. The inciting incident which made me reconsider this typology for my final year was the passing of my granddad during lock down. Due to the restrictions surrounding care homes we weren’t able to see him before his passing and we also weren’t allowed a funeral afterwards. Not being allowed to participate in or hold such an important event put into perspective the importance of these types of spaces.

After deciding to design a funeral space in fourth year I revisited my old work. I quickly realised that my third year work didn’t challenge the social and cultural issues surrounding death which we face in western society. In the UK I feel we have an outdated and rigid way of looking at death, it is still very much a taboo subject. Our fear of death is perpetuated by the current funeral industry which works in a profit focused business model instead of a one modelled around empathy, community and compassion. Designing a traditional funeral home would mean designing a space has an outdated way of approaching death. This is not what I wanted this space to be. During my research I learned about the term Memento mori – “remember death”. A Momento mori is an object kept as a reminder of the inevitability of death, this can materialise in many forms, commonly it is seen as a skull, ring or coin. I wanted this space to be its own Momento Mori and ‘remember death’ in a positive way.

From this, ‘FINALE’ was born. FINALE is an an open and safe death positive space. The building features multiple levels and zones catered towards different aspects of death. Each zone allows people to come to terms with their own morality in different ways, no matter what stage in life they are. I chose the name finale as it ties in with the history of the building, as was a purpose built cinema build in 1922. A finale is a term given to the ending of something often exciting or spectacular. I think Western society would benefit from viewing death more as a finale, focusing on a celebration of someones life rather than the loss of it.

I feel there is a misconception surrounding death and grief that it begins after the person has passed. During my own experiences of grief, I realised that it began as soon as I acknowledged my grandad was seriously unwell. Months went by from that moment to his eventual passing where I was both experiencing grief and anticipating it. My research discovered that 40% of women found the pre-loss stage to be more stressful than the post-loss stage. This lack of support led me to research Death doulas. These individuals provide non medical care and support for the person and their family before, during and after their death. Everything from where they envision themselves resting to what music or poems they want recited. Throughout the dying process, they check in with family members to alleviate their stress and once the individual has died, they guide the surviving members through the grieving process. Including a Death doula space in my building not only empowers the dying to take control of their last moments but it also allows the deceased’s family the time and energy to properly grieve. The death doula zone has an indoor garden and kitchen area where users of this space can spend time independently.

This space also features two ‘deathbed rooms’, one which replicates a hospital room and the other a bedroom. Not all of us can have the luxury of dying at home and so I wanted users of this service to be able to curate and contemplate their deathbed so that when the time comes they feel safe and surrounded by familiar material objects which give them comfort. The majority of the Doula service is conducted inside a curtain railing system which can accommodate four smaller tables in individual curtain pods, or one large group in a singular pod, making the space accessible for 1-1 meeting as well as meetings with large families.

Something I specifically wanted to incorporate into the Death Doula service was a space for digital death. Our increasing digital presence is becoming a second life, so it makes sense that once we die it is like a second death. Social media accounts which were once a centre of communication from you becomes a source of communication to and about you after you die. Digital death is is a relatively new concept which acknowledges this fact and encourages people to organise their online information and assets and take control of their digital legacy. I chose to incorporate digital death into my space with individual pods. These glass pods are wrapped in wool felt which absorbs both high a low-frequency sound waves and the gaps maintain an open and airy feel. Users would come into this space and organise which accounts will be shared to a loved one to memorialise or manage, and which ones will be deleted after the user has passed. This can include online banking, social media, cloud storage, purchased digital content and email accounts. The inspiration for this space came from my dissertation research. In my dissertation I research objects of death and mourning throughout history and if these objects are successful in a digital format… and often times they are. Memorialised accounts act as a powerful digital destination for grief and are increasing in popularity.

The death industry has a lack of sustainable death options. The funeral industry in the UK is estimated to be worth around £1 billion annually with over 600,000 funerals taking place each year. Many of the practices upheld by this industry are not only damaging to our relationships with death but also have a massive environmental impact. In one year globally, the funeral industry uses 4 million acres of forest for caskets, 2 million tons of concrete for burial vaults and 800,000 gallons of Formaldehyde for embalming. Formaldehyde is considered to be in the top 10% of the Environmental Agency’s most hazardous and damaging chemicals, it is also known to cause cancer. Moreover, our current use of cremation also releases mercury vapour, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and carcinogens. I have swapped fire for water cremation. This is an environmentally friendly alternative where the process of alkaline hydrolysis is harnessed to break a body down into its chemical components. The resulting liquid contains amino acids, sugars and salts and can be used as plant fertiliser. When compared to traditional cremation, alkaline hydrolysis uses 1/8th of the energy and leaves less than 1/4th of the carbon footprint. Water cremation drastically reduces the greenhouse gas emissions and the water used to reduce the body is less than the average person would consume in 3 days of life.

It was important to me that the water cremation space was a disability accessible space and that the experience was the same for everyone. The first ramp from the waiting area to the function room is wide enough for multiple family members to walk side by side, comforting each other and the second ramp which brings the bereaved back to the reception is single file, giving an opportunity for individuals to focus on their singular identity and their unique relationship with that person. The water cremation space holds witness cremations which means once the bereaved enter the space they will be able to dress the casket, normally with flowers or pictures, and then view the cremation. Viewing a body has many benefits to the bereaved, a chance for final recognition and a time for everyone to personally say goodbye. I also wanted the option to open this intimate space to the public in a controlled and educational way. The ceiling is actually a void space which has a curtain that can be opened or closed to allow complete privacy.

The first floor compromises of a community space, an event space and a death design retail space. I wanted to create a space in which people who are grieving can distract themselves and connect with the world around them. Originally I was using the Kübler-Ross model which is more commonly known as the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However after my own experiences of loss I found this process be too linear of a process and I don’t think it accommodates different types of grief. This led me to research the ‘Dual Process Model of Bereavement,’ This model suggests that there are two types of stressor that are associated with grieving: loss-oriented stressors and restoration-oriented stressors. Loss-oriented stressors, are stressors that come from focusing on and processing the loss of the person who has died and our relationship with that person. This includes everything from looking at old photos, yearning, remembering, and reminiscing. Restoration-oriented, on the other hand, has to do with attending to life changes and doing new things which distract from feelings of grief. A crucial part of the Dual Process Model is the concept of oscillation. Healthy grieving means engaging in a dynamic process of oscillating between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping. A griever will oscillate between confronting the loss and avoiding the loss. My aim for this space is for it to embody the restoration oriented stage of grief. This is an open and airy space which aims to help the grieving try new things and reconnect with the world after their loss. On the occasions that the crematorium curtains are open, this space will be still be open to the public, but it will be used to witness the cremation service below.

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