Libby Leshgold Gallery

With work and objects by

Avanto Architects (Finland)
Capsula Mundi (Italy)
D A Studios (India)
James Michels (Canada)
Northwoods Casket Company (USA)
Nurn (Poland)
Pechet Studio (Canada)
Studio Nienke Hoogvliet (Netherlands)
Waugh Thistleton Architects (UK)

Designing Death is an exhibition of contemporary funerary architecture and objects. Featuring architects and designers from around the world, the exhibition explores the role of thoughtful and innovative design within the functions and rituals related to the passage from life into death, taking into consideration both the deceased and the bereaved that mourn their passing. The design choices that comprise the projects included in the exhibition are informed by the ways in which they are used, such as how a funeral procession moves through a building, how a body physically breaks down, and how a ritual object is used for memorialization.

One example is the Capsula Mundi, from the Italian design team Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel. An alternative to the traditional casket, the Capsula Mundi is a bio-degradable burial pod out of which grows a tree that is nourished by the body interred within. The Capsula Mundi, and other green burial projects, have the potential to redefine the cemetery, from a space of rigidly conforming rows of stone with concrete tombs above ground and toxic chemicals below, to a naturalized parkland that contributes to the environment through natural growth.

The award-winning Bushey Cemetery, by UK-based Waugh Thistleton Architects, emphasizes the integration of built forms with the surrounding landscape. For the design team led by Andrew Waugh, "The process of the Jewish funeral defined the design for the extended site; each point in the processional ceremony was landscaped to provide contemplative settings and views, harnessing the site's established trees as key pivot points." The prayer halls are made of timber and rammed earth, materials that are both resilient and sustainable. The buildings are designed with the idea that once the cemetery is full and they are no longer in use, they can largely break down and return to nature.

Mourn is a project by Studio Nienke Hoogvliet that was created in collaboration with the Dutch Water Authorities. A sustainable bioplastic (PHA or Poly Hydroxy Alkanoate) made from waste water is mixed with cremation ashes to form an urn like object. The specific form of each urn is based on the soil conditions of specific sites so that local flora and fauna can effectively break down the nutrients and potential toxins contained in the ashes.

A simple cotton burial shroud, such as the one included here by Northwoods Casket Company, has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all burial practices. The shroud, whether used in cremation or for internment in a grave, has been used for millennia by many cultures and religions and is gaining popularity in contemporary natural burial practices.

Cremation is standard practice in the Hindu religion, and when tasked with modernizing an existing crematorium in Hyderabad, India, the architectural firm D A Studios looked to the Antyeṣti for their inspiration. Antyeṣti, the final phase of life, consists of five stages related to the mourning and cremation process, and each architectural component of the Mahaprasthanam Crematorium is designed to speak directly to the path through these stages.

Though half a world away and designed for the Christian faith, the Chapel of St Lawrence in Vantaa, Finland, is also based on a symbolic route. Designed by Avanto Architects, this cemetery chapel embraces the concept of a polku, or path from mortality to eternity, from here to the hereafter. The building is a striking combination of white masonry and patinated copper. According to Avanto, "An important factor in choosing the materials was locality in addition to longevity; and on-site building and an emphasis on craft were distinct features of the whole project. These ways of working ground the building in its surroundings and display the traces of handcraft."

Urns can be used to house cremated remains for a finite period of time, before they are spread at sites that are significant to the departed, or kept as vessels that contain the ashes for prolonged periods of time so that loved ones can keep them close. Vessels for both purposes are included in the exhibition. Cree/Metis carver James Michels makes bentwood boxes that can be used for both contemporary funerary purposes as well as traditional ceremonial uses, such as the transportation of repatriated bones. Polish designers Jo Jurga and Martyna Ochojska, working under the name Nurn, make biodegradable vessels that can be used for ceremonial burials at sea or for internment in the ground. They also make striking vessels made of wood, concrete, and copper that function as both urn and sculptural object.

Ritual and memorialization are immensely important to the grieving process. Until recently, there was little acknowledgement or accommodation made for grieving parents who have lost pre- and post-term babies. The first of its kind in North America, the Little Spirits Garden in Saanich, BC, designed by Pechet Studio, is a dedicated space for the memorialization of infants. The garden includes small houses that families can decorate and motifs based on the womb and heart. It is a place where families can come together to help each other through the mourning process.

In addition to the contemporary design on display, the exhibition also features a small gallery of related historical images and objects that contextualize our approaches to funerary processes and rituals. Designing Death is part of the Libby Leshgold Gallery's series of exhibitions entitled Drawn from the Shadows that look at the passing of time, mortality, and spirituality.

A symposium exploring the themes of the exhibition in greater detail will be held at Emily Carr University of Art + Design on March 29 and 30, 2019.

We are grateful for the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and presenting sponsor RBC Wealth Management.


Canada Council for the ArtsRBC Wealth Management


Capsula Mundi