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Editorial: Can design make a difference in a moment of paralysing grief?

Editorial image

We need spaces at the heart of our cities that offer solace and consolation

I don’t remember the rooms, only the coffin with its coronet of white roses, the carpet, a hard-back chair, and the feeling of being squeezed like a sponge – too wrung out to cry.

There was no consolation in the design of the funeral home. Would this have made any difference? I remember its surreal ordinariness, like a hotel lobby.

Its mediocrity sat at odds with the drama of that bad day. A mother and father, broken – my mum, my dad – and the body laid out – my sister’s body, just 36 years old, stolen by illness. But also a body that was not hers – no longer hers – the viewing of it proof that she was gone. Gone where?

The church was better – Victorian, hefty yet soaring, shafts of light, an echoing organ. It felt safer to cry in there, with its pillars like the trees of a great stone forest. An important space worthy of my sister, and reliably solid at a moment when I felt soluble, half-dissolved. 

‘We have tried to push death out of the city, annexing it to the margins of our lives. This shared denial makes us irresponsible’

Some days later in the cemetery, through the naked trees, I was staring at a car autobody shop over a fence from the graveside. I remember reading its advertisement for tyres as a smaller box of ashes was buried in the ground. We would later plant a Japanese maple there, and it has brought comfort over the past 13 years (can it be that long since we last saw each other?). Its growth marks the span from that personal year zero, and life, going on around us, stalwart against sorrow.

My parents change the plantings around the headstone with the seasons: flowers in spring, evergreens at Christmas, cabbages in winter. There is love in the tending. More consoling for me is the small memorial garden at our family summerhouse where a portion of her ashes and my grandmother’s are buried. It’s not far to visit, there is privacy and the opportunity to read a book or pull weeds, or simply walk by and remember on the way to the lake – because I want to remember, and often. I want to stand in their silent presence, just to be near them, with them, again. There is nothing to mark the grave, they rest like a secret under the leaves, and the flowers are not in vases but alive.

We have tried to push death out of the city, annexing it to the margins of our lives, outsourcing the dressing of the body from our homes, banishing it from our medical vocabulary, as though death was the result of human failure to prevent it. This shared denial makes us irresponsible, rejecting the frailty and shortness of time, and our responsibility to future generations. 

With a burgeoning urban ageing population, there are increasing global issues of scale in death infrastructure – the fastest growing town in America is The Villages, Florida, a fairground waiting room where over 55s ‘go to live, before they die’. Land and money are now scarce, and death has become a business opportunity, with services, products and gadgets to make us feel we have paid tribute, not just paid out. 

‘The deathbed should be welcomed back to the hearth, and we must acknowledge that tributes, gravesites, chapels and memorials are more for the living anyway’

But the time has come for us to embrace death again, to bring it home – not as an event, but as a process for both the dying and those left behind.

The deathbed should be welcomed back to the hearth, and we must acknowledge that tributes, gravesites, chapels and memorials are more for the living anyway, serving as a place of social cohesion – open and public space that offers the unique feeling of purpose and continuity. 

We have always built grand structures as a retort to our mortality, from pyramids to burial mounds. As traditions change, flex, morph and react, so must our architecture. In many of the crematoria built today, a form-follows-function approach leads to the creation of efficient Modernist factories for processing both the dead and their families in the short aftermath of loss. Very few design and planning solutions work hard enough to serve the community in a lasting way. To face our inevitable return to stardust, we need space at the heart of our cities for solace and consolation, until we meet again.