Capsula Mundi is a cultural and broad-based project, which envisions a different approach to the way we think about death. It’s an egg-shaped pod, an ancient and perfect form, made of biodegradable material, where our departed loved ones are placed for burial.
Ashes will be held in small egg-shaped urns while bodies will be laid down in a fetal position in larger pods. The Capsula will then be buried as a seed in the earth. A tree, chosen in life by the deceased, will be planted on top of it and serve as a memorial for the departed and as a legacy for posterity and the future of our planet. Family and friends will continue to care for the tree as it grows. Cemeteries will acquire a new look and, instead of the cold grey landscape we see today, they will grow into vibrant woodlands. We recently caught up with Raoul Bretzel, the designer who, with Anna Citelli, has created Capsula Mundi, to learn more about the project.
Capsula Mundi is such an incredibly progressive idea. What has been the hardest thing about making it happen. And what has been the easiest?
The most difficult thing was the beginning. When in 2003 we presented Capsula Mundi in Milan, in one of the major furniture fair in Europe, the Salone del Mobile. In this fair, the institutional role of design is to take care of redesigning the comforts of life, through furnishings. In this context, it was difficult at first to introduce a project about death, a quite uncomfortable topic for most of us. We were afraid about the reaction of the public. Eventually, things went well, beyond all expectations. We were actually offering a way out from the weight of the cultural taboo on death and people needed this. People were enthusiastic.
I know that the body pods are still being developed. But you are selling the ashes urns. How has that been going?
We have just started selling the Capsula Mundi biodegradable urns and we are now going to open up to all markets. For now things are going well, also because for more than ten years we have dealt with spreading the Capsula Mundi concept to raise awareness on the topic and this has created a certain expectation towards our products. At the moment we’re selling the Capsula Mundi urn on our ecommerce (www.capsulamundi.it/shop).
You have the physical challenge of creating a pod that will meet all the required legal standards. But what about the psychological challenges you face in challenging the status quo of how we bury our dead?
Our starting point was the redesign of the elements that accompany the end of life, which in Italy, as in many other countries, are not redesigned by tens, and perhaps hundreds, of years. So basically, we have redesigned the coffin in order to change the approach to the death and face the taboo around it. But also we wanted to give our contribution for protecting the environment. On one hand we want to reflect on the use of the coffin, an object made with precious woods (trees with slow growth) and with a life cycle of only a few days. On the other hand, using universal symbols of life (the egg, the tree and the fetal position), we wanted to highlight that we are part of the Nature we are treating so badly in many ways.
Do you find that the resistance you get from a legal standpoint is actually rooted in people’s resistance to talking about death?
RB: Obviously there is a connection. We need to change mentality before changing the laws, this is how it works for all the society issues. The burial regulations are often quite old, in Italy they date back to the Napoleonic times, but society hasn’t push yet for a change. The traditions and culture can generate resistance to talking about death. All of us know that death is an event we share with all the living beings, it is natural and it belongs to life in its broadest sense: plants, animals, micro-organisms, all have their life cycle. But if the system of values and objects around this matter are all related to pain and deprivation, trying to remove from our life this reality, death is, of course, an uncomfortable issue. Capsula Mundi looks at death from a phenomenological point of view, as part of the natural cycle of life. In our exhibitions, we have understood that this is important to decrease the pressure and to make the idea of dying more acceptable.
I am sure Capsula Mundi appeals to a certain type of person who already has a progressive view of death and burial. Do you see a future where this could become mainstream?
More and more people are aware today of the alarming state in which our planet is. Being able to re-establish contacts with Nature, feeling part of the life-system will be inevitable if we want to avoid the worst. Anyway, around the world, the green burial movement is growing really fast for two reasons, one is that this approach to the death is really changing and the second is the people are much more aware about their environmental footprint. Capsula Mundi is going forward in this direction.
Are you getting any kind of reaction, good or bad, to Capsula Mundi from a religious standpoint?
In reality, Capsula Mundi does not interfere with cultural and religious implications: everyone is free to choose their own ritual or farewell ceremony that feels close to their spirituality and subsequently use Capsula Mundi.
On your website, you say that Capsula Mundi “is a cultural and broad-based project, which envisions a different approach to the way we think about death.” But have you noticed if it is also changing the way people think about life?
Yes, it is. We hope that Capsula Mundi will help us to understand the importance of respecting all the form of life on Earth, even the ones who do not belong to the human race (flora, fauna and resources).
You have a vision of cemeteries becoming “vibrant woodlands”. If you succeed, how do you think that will change the way people approach their own lives?
RB: The end of life is a matter full of links with life and with what we believe. In fact, burials are studied by archeologists and anthropologists to obtain information on the system of values that a given society shared, in the past or in the present. It can reveal spirituals and cultural truth and define attitudes and real behaviors. We’d like to think that in the future, any person looking at a wood can wonder if it is a wood “of memory” and in the doubt whether it is or not, he could respect it and protect it anyway.
The Bucket is dedicated to helping people lead more fulfilling lives by acknowledging their own mortality. Do you see Capsula Mundi doing that as well?
Definitely. Death is part of our life and we are part of a cycle of life which doesn’t have an end. Feeling part of a greater system, having a bigger look of what is the Nature we are part of is one of the keys to fully live our life.
I know it must be a monumental task to perfect your burial pods AND advocate for the legality of green burials. Do you have any estimate about when Capsula Mundi burial pods might be legal in the United States?
Green burials are just legal in many countries. In many states of the US green burials are a reality, with beautiful natural burial grounds. Our Capsula Mundi for the body is not on sale at the moment because we are still working at it. It’s an ambitious project but we hope it won’t take too long. Unfortunately, in many other countries green burial of the body are not permitted, as in Italy where we are based. We have spent so much energy and put forth a lot of effort in sensitizing people about this concept and a different approach to the death.
Is there something our readers can do to help speed up the process?
For changing the law, I think we need to change before our mind and our mentality. So help us sensitizing people about a green way of burying it really helps. We can make the difference.