• A Resting Place for Dead Atheists

    From mementos made from ashes to chemical dissolution, there is a wide scope to look for environmental-friendly means of dealing with the dead who do not have any religious beliefs.

    Tikender Singh Panwar

    October 17, 2018

    It so happened that the burial of a very dear friend’s father took place a few days ago at Delhi  and I was just struck by the idea; what about the atheists? How would they like to be treated once they die?  For Hindus, it’s the pyre, for Muslims and Christians it’ burial, and the form varies for Buddhists and Parsis. So what about atheists?

    Being an atheist myself, I am aware of the fact that a good number of them have already filled forms to hand over their bodies to hospitals. But, perhaps, not everyone would like to go that way! So what should be the design of a resting place for dead atheists?

    I discussed this issue with my students in the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) with whom I am engaged for their 5th year seminar. I asked them as to how would they visualise and design a resting space and place for dead atheists.  I was quite surprised to know that almost 80% of the students said they were atheists. They also pointed out that recently a workshop was conducted in the SPA to visualise such a design for dead atheists.

    Let us study the designs that figured in the minds of the planners and architects for the atheists to rest after their death.

    The Architectural Design Project

    As a natural outcome of agnosticism, there was not one but multiple designs envisioned by the designers/planners for dead atheists. Since there are no traditions that need to be followed, there is a wide scope to look for environmental-friendly means of dealing with the dead who do have any religious beliefs.

    Interestingly, one of the designs suggested dissolving the dead through alkaline hydrolysis aka ‘green hydrolysis’. This is also known as ‘biocremation’, ‘resomation’ , ‘flameless cremation’, or ‘water cremation’. While, this is a greener approach than the traditional cremation, this process takes more time than the traditional cremation and the initial investment is also considered high.

    The second design was of burial without headstones or coffin to quicken the process of decomposition. Also,  the same burial space could be used for another body after some time.

    Electrical cremation is another form of body disposal in which power can be supplied through solar panels installed on the site.

    Converting the ashes into mementos and giving these to the loved ones or placing them on site was another idea. Also, returning the ashes to the loved ones to allow them to use it as they deemed fit could also be practiced. But there is need to ensure that these are  not immersed in rivers to prevent the water from getting polluted.

    A few students modelled a project in which the ashes could be stored in catacombs on site in an urn. Catacombs burial was also practiced in ancient Rome, as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land. The original Roman custom was cremation, after which the burnt remains were kept in a pot or urn in graves. Similarly, it was suggested that such catacombs could be constructed and could be a site of visit for the people.

    I remember whilst in office of the deputy Mayor of Shimla, a large number of people on a visit from England wanted to see the graves of their grandparents. Storing ashes in urns in catacombs could be a very novel idea!

    Another group of students modelled an idea in which seeds of a tree are mixed with the ashes and then planted in the fields so that the tree can be named on the individual whose ashes were used.

    Atheists do not believe in religious formulations of life after death. Hence,  all forms of rituals attached to wary the spirit are not required. There is no thought of reunion of the spirit and the body, rather death is about the reunion of the memories of a person with her loved ones.


    The writer was the directly elected deputy mayor of Shimla. He now works in the All India Urban Forum.

    First published in Newsclick.

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