Although nobody can assure whether there is an afterlife or not, those whom we loved but passed away do reside in our memories. Although they are not physically with us in the world, we may be able to feel them through memories, and maybe, disappearing from our memories means the real death for them.

'Tombtree' is an alternative monument to commemorate the deceased through physical interactions. As this climbing structure has hand-holds and a seat associated with the intimate interactions that we used to have with the deceased, for example, sitting on my father's shoulder, Tombtree prompts reminiscences, imprints the deceased clearly, and makes us experience the deceased more vividly in the climbing process.

Since we do not forget what we learned through our bodies, for example, riding a bike, as procedural memories engraved in our unconsciousness, intimate interactions with the deceased reside in our bodies although we may forget what it feels like in our heads, whereas we mostly rely on visual memories through a tombstone or pictures as a conscious recalling process. Physical interactions, however, may conjure new dimensional memories by stimulating unconsciousness.


96 x 96 x 120 inches

wood, fabric, cork


research: cues of future changes

Tombtree is the final project of graduate ID studio at RISD in fall 2018, which focused on practicing critical design. Among numerous topics that we can be critical of, why did I choose 'death' as a topic, which many people even hesitate to discuss? Well, it's a bit of a long story.

The class started with research for interesting and/or "stinky" signals indicating future changes; it could be a fascinating technological development or weird adoption of technologies. During my researh, one thing stood out to me, which was 'QR code for the dead'.

To me, the combination of tombstone and QR code seems odd because QR codes have been familiar as a tool for promotion in commercial fields. While QR codes can provide extra information that a tombstone may not be able to contain, I cannot erase that uncomfortable feeling because of the inappropriate context in using a QR code on a tombstone. Hence, such contextless design drew my attention to rethink death and the way to remember the deceased.

Graveyards are becoming smart spaces, but will today's technology last for eternity?
Graveyards are becoming smart spaces, but will today's technology last for eternity?
Thought exploring process about death

flash fiction: once upon a time

After identifying personal interests, we wrote "flash fictions" for probable future scenarios based on arbitrary opening sentences; what I arbitrarily picked were:

  • Endangered species:
  • For sale:
  • When I walk into the forest,

I went for the third scenario, as I have been interested in death and the interaction with the deceased (to be specific, memories of the dead), so wanted to address two following questions through my work: Is death the end of life? Can we interact with the deceased?

#1. We may confront more disasters, not only natural but man-made, making us endangered.
We may confront more disasters, not only natural, but man-made, making us endangered.
#2. What would the extremely unequal society look like with revolutionary technologies?
#3. Can we keep feeling whom we loved after they passed away?

diagetic prototype: cloud generating machine

In western society, the notion that we become nothing once we die is prevalent, although nobody really knows or experiences it. As the first approach to tackle this notion was to show the material aspect of our body after death. Although we die, as we all know, the components of our body will be staying in this world in a different form. However, people might keep thinking that we would become nothing as we don't see a clear transition.

So, I tried to draw a clear connection from human remains to the larger system, mother nature, through my speculative design: a hypothetical cloud generating machine, which creates a cloud using human ashes.

techniques | Model making, wood & metal working: bent lamination, metal bending, etc.
tools | lasercutter, band saw, drill press, milling machine(bridgeport), metal bending machine, hand tools

Cloud generating machine
Cloud generating machine
Lasercut and assembled the top part
Wood bending laminate for the bottom
Brass bending
Structure test
Making the top part
Cloud generating machine at the park

experiment: making clouds

The basic idea of this is cloud seeding and my hypothesis is that human ashes, mainly calcium phosphate, can play a role in ice nucleus. So, I decided to see if it is possible or not.

Before diving into the experiments, I tried to get some advice from experts in inorganic chemistry or geology, but they responded that they were not able to answer. So I tried to experiment.

The basic principle of cloud making is simple; adiabatic expansion, so I could replicate the setting and applied calcium phosphate instead of using smoke. However, it seemed not to be working well as I found most of the calcium phosphate in the water. I tried other methods such as using glycerin and distilled water or a humidifier, but the results were the same.

The last thing I did for the experiment was to use helium gas to make a 'fake' cloud of soap bubbles. Although I succeeded in making the cloud float, neither the visual effect nor calcium phosphate becoming ice nucleus was what I expected. So, I decided to pivot my direction.

Cloud making with glycerin and distilled water
Cloud making with glycerin and distilled water
Cloud making with helium gas
A helium cloud on the ceiling

pivoting: tombtree

Also, I realized that people might not think that we will stay in this world although I showed the connection because the physical aspect is not all about us; people may consider that the non-physical aspects such as mentality and spirituality are more representing myself. So my question was geared toward: How can I show that our non-physical selves stay here after death? What non-physical aspects would be left?

Here, my thoughts arrived at memories; our mentality and spirituality may stay in this world as long as people remember us. This is not a new thought; in Mexican tradition, the day of the dead is common. To be remembered is the reason why humans leave a tombstone with their names, and maybe that's the reason why somebody put QR codes on their tombstones to augment memories.

However, we might rely on only visual memories to remember people such as pictures, while we have richer memories and experiences such as intimate interactions. What if we can physically interact with the memories of the deceased? Would it transcend the visual memories, enrich the experience, and make the memories last longer?

To be specific, the memories formed by physical activities are called "procedural memories" referring to unconscious memory. For example, we almost never forget how to ride a bike even if we have not done so in years. So, I decided to intervene in the unconscious memory process through Tombtree. Tombtree is a climbing structure having "more or less" universal intimate interaction such as sitting on a father's shoulder. By climbing(or playing with) tombtree, the interaction stimulates your unconscious memories and fosters the reminiscences.

techniques | wood working in a big scale
tools | miter saw, band saw, hand tools

Sketch models for Tombtree
Sketch models for Tombtree
Making process for parts of Tombtree
Making process for Shoulder stoo
Handholds: fingers, noses, chins, and foothills
Construction of Tombtree