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A Tour of History's Smart Graveyards

We've always looked for ways to use our knowledge and the newest tools to rethink what cemeteries are, how they work, and to expand our very notions of life and death.
Photo via Flickr/CC.

Johannesburg has a grave problem: people keep stealing tombstones. While the dead certainly don’t care, grieving families do, and so a private company has stepped up and offered microchips as a potential solution.

Microchips could offer a deterrent to tombstone thefts, or at least a chance to catch the culprits at a time when around 20 tombstones are being stolen per month in South Africa's largest city. Once the microchip is installed within the tombstone, the Associated Press reports, it takes two forms of action if a grave marker is disturbed. First, it will sound an alarm within the cemetery itself, in hopes of interrupting the crime. Second, it will send text messages to living relatives, letting them know something has gone down.

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These “smart” tombstones are neither the first nor the last attempt to integrate technology into graveyards. Throughout history, we have looked for ways to use our knowledge and the newest tools to not only rethink what cemeteries are and how they work, but to expand our very notions of life and death.

HOW TO EXHUME YOURSELF (JUST IN CASE)

The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz depicts the recovery of supposed cholera victims, and is credited with popularizing the safety coffin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

An early advance in graveyard tech was the safety coffin. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people feared being buried alive. The fear was so palpable that it drove a number of creative, albeit somewhat bizarre and hilarious solutions for burying the problem if and when it arose. Of the available options, the most famous example was the bell setup whereby a chord attached to a bell was extended into the coffin. Should a corpse not really be a corpse and wake up in the nightmarish situation of being buried alive, the non-deceased could ring the bell to attract attention and be released. Alternatives to the bell included flags, fireworks, and vaults.

A variation on this was the “portable death chamber,” a body box with a viewing window through which a crew of monitors could actually ensure that a person was decaying. As described in the book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, “If there were clear signs of putrefaction, a trapdoor in the bottom of the death chamber would be triggered, and the corpse would fall down into a previously dug grave underneath it.”

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VIRTUAL LIFE AFTER DEATH 

Via CNN.

New technologies to store information, photos, and other forms of data have begun to make the typical tombstone inscription look as archaic as the floppy disk. No longer are people limited to their name, date of death, and a contrived phrase; their entire life histories can now be queued up via smartphone.

Much like the safety coffin, there are numerous iterations of this theme. Earlier attempts to integrate data storage with tombstones as a form of memorial were laughable—clunky iPad-esque screens garishly attached to a love one’s marker. But now we have sleeker alternatives. When scanned, QR codes, attached via sticker or on its own tiny separate stone, whisk cemetery visitors to a memorial website complete with, well, really whatever you want. Another option is the E-TOMB, which keeps your social media presence alive long after you cease to be. There's also Neshama, the so-called Facebook for dead people.

VENDING MACHINES FOR THE DEAD

Via Reuters.

In Japan, burials are expensive. A few years ago, Tokyo saw plots going for $100,000 a head. And given that a large percentage of Japanese are cremated upon death, such expenses seem superfluous.

Enter the urn warehouse. Instead of spending big money to bury loved ones beneath the ground, some grieving families in Japan have instead interred their family members’ remains in technologically-advanced warehouses. Should they wish to pay their respects, an authorized family member scans an identifying card. Once their card is recognized, a robo-arm finds and grabs the appropriate urn from storage and brings it to a special mourning room. In a way, it’s sort of like a vending machine for the dead.

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These solutions may not be appropriate to you (I doubt you need a “portable death chamber”) or they simply may not appeal (I certainly don’t want my some of my more egregious tweets being available to anyone who happens to walk by my future grave). But these and more options are out there, which says more about our relationship to our own mortality than it does about our personal preferences.

@heyiamlex

More on death, technology, and the macabre:

Why Caskets Occasionally Explode

Motherboard TV: The Body Farm

Navigate America's Most Famous Cemetery With a New App

So We're Crowdfunding Our Funerals Online Now