Environmental, economic and cultural factors have all shaped funerary architecture throughout the ages
More than 60 per cent of open space in the London Borough of Newham is cemetery land, a problem not confined to British cities. Anyone taking the ‘A’ train from Manhattan to JFK Airport through Queens will wonder why the dead take up as much room as the living, as the train rattles past mile after mile of headstones and memorials. The ubiquitous presence of the dead in England’s capital city declined in the 20th century with the closure of urban churchyards and Victorian cemeteries, by then filled to capacity. Crucial too was the rise of cremation, with London’s town planners being among its earliest and most ardent advocates, avoiding the need to create a ‘white belt’ on the perimeter of the capital required to bury a growing population.
Historically, finding a place for the dead was as much a progenitor of town planning as designing burial sites and structures was for architecture. ‘When we find a mound in the woods, six feet long and three feet wide, raised to a pyramidal form by means of a space,’ Adolf Loos wrote, ‘we become serious and something in us says: someone was buried here. That is architecture.’ Loos was not alone in believing that architecture began with the burial site. The pre-Christian Etruscan ‘city of the dead’ at Cerveteri, north of Rome – the inspiration not only for DH Lawrence’s rhapsodic book, Etruscan Places, but also for Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – comprises a network of streets and districts as artfully planned as a Regency enclave, with elegant beehive tombs for the wealthy and rows of terraced houses for the rest. The much-admired Circle of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery pays tribute to this architectural patterning.
Calvary Cemetery, New York, consecrated in 1848
Source: Tyler Merbler
Disposing of the dead itself is straightforward. Corpses – ambiguously neither human nor waste according to anthropologist Mary Douglas – are usually either buried or burnt. However, the religious and cultural taboos surrounding the place and act of disposition remain as powerful as ever. It was all much simpler in the world of rural Christianity, where almost everybody was buried in the nearest churchyard, and the bodies piled up promiscuously in a tiny patch of earth – God’s Acre – used again and again. The average English churchyard contains the remains of more than 5,000 people, and it was rough ground until the Victorians came along, tidied it up and acquired a taste for inscribed headstones, table tombs and monuments.
The heroic era of the great urban cemeteries came in the 19th century, following the creation of joint-stock companies by wealthier nonconformists wishing to be buried in unconsecrated ground. London’s impressive ring of private monumental cemeteries established at this time included Kensal Green (1833), West Norwood (1836), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Brompton (1840), Nunhead (1840) and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (1841). Subsequently known as The Magnificent Seven, many are less magnificent today, for one principal reason: Victorian law deemed all burials to be ‘in perpetuity’, which meant that, on reaching capacity, the income dried up and there was no money left to maintain the graves. This is why, in 1987, Westminster City Council notoriously sold three of its historic cemeteries – Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill – for 15p each to a developer, a decision rescinded when public outcry led the district auditor to rule the sale unlawful.
Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart’s design for Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, 1813
For more than 100 years these exuberant Victorian interpretations of the ancient necropolis were splendid creations, establishing a cult of bold funerary architecture, ambitious tree-planting and landscaping schemes, all combined to imbue them with an ethos of melancholy uplift and other-worldliness. In many towns and cities, the same people who designed the public parks designed the cemeteries – John Claudius Loudon being the most famous – and they have remained part of the ‘park family’ ever since. But the cemetery alone wasn’t responsible for creating a monumental, if at times flamboyant, public funerary culture. With interment came elaborate rituals of mourning, of funeral processions, and decades of graveside attendance, upkeep and floral adornment.
When Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine département, proposed closing the older cemeteries of central Paris and moving the remains beyond the city limits in the second half of the 19th century, crowds protested in the street with the cry: Pas de cimetière, pas de cité! These sentiments were prescient. The age of the grand public funeral bringing the city to a halt – often marking the death of a popular politician, a celebrity or even a notorious underworld villain – has been relinquished, now that the newer cemeteries have been relegated to the suburbs. In the midst of modern urban life, death is now invisible.
Source: Look die Bildagentur der fotografen / Alamy
In architectural terms there remains a strong divide between northern and southern European interment practices. In former Protestant cultures burial is below ground – occasionally in a crypt – whereas in southern Europe this takes place above ground in what the Italians call tombe di famiglia (family tombs), or in rows of tombe in edifice (wall tombs) or loculi. In the case of the latter, these niches – known colloquially as forno (literally, ovens) – may be contracted for use for as little as 15 years, after which the remains are interred elsewhere and the niche becomes available again. This is why the most famous Italian cemeteries – La Certosa in Bologna, Staglieno in Genoa – are still in use; many forno are leased for a fixed period and subsequently reused.
In recent times Carlo Scarpa’s design of a tomb for the Brion family at San Vito d’Altivole near Treviso in Italy has been much admired, combining separate sarcophagi, chapel and water garden in a memorable assembly of hard and soft elements. Yet apart from Scarpa and Aldo Rossi, modern architects have largely kept clear of cemetery design. David Chipperfield has designed an extension to the island cemetery of San Michele in the Venice lagoon, while Enric Miralles (aided by Carme Pinós) completed in 1994 what many consider to be the most successful contemporary cemetery, at Igualada in Spain. Miralles himself was interred there following his death in 2000.
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Source: Luis E Carranza
Igualada, a small town in the hills, an hour’s train ride from Barcelona, is in harsh rocky terrain punctuated by quarries. Between 1985 and 1994 Miralles and Pinós completed their ‘new cemetery’ in a disused quarry on the outskirts, using materials that were familiar from the surrounding landscape: rusting steel, old railway sleepers, quarried stone. The main entrance gate is fashioned from industrial steel reinforcing mesh, which leads to the beginning of the cemetery proper, marked by a rusted sculptural construction serving as a vehicle barrier. From this clear threshold a processional path slopes steadily downwards into an open-air catacomb of burial chambers and family tombs.
The uprights of the barrier approximate to a Calvary Cross, ambiguous enough to resist a wholly Christian interpretation (or as Asplund and Lewerentz said of the great cross commanding the entrance to the undulating pastoral grandeur of the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, ‘To those who see it as such, a consolation, to those who do not, simply a cross’). The majority of individual niches are in cast-concrete walled tombs, but there are also sealed family vaults embedded in the gabion walls lining the main concourse where mourners congregate, fully open to the sky and the elements. Igualada Cemetery possesses a profound spiritual presence within its severe landscape: serious and purposeful without being in any way morbid.
Enric miralles the funambulist 5tc
Elsewhere, cremation has subverted the place and rituals of the cemetery, not only creating a new building type, but also a new funerary landscape. Present-day European cremation rates vary, though most have been increasing: Denmark 81 per cent, Czech Republic 80 per cent, Sweden 80 per cent, UK 75 per cent, the Netherlands 61 per cent, Finland 48 per cent, France 35 per cent, Italy 20 per cent, Ireland 15 per cent, Romania 0.3 per cent. Catholic countries held out against cremation for a long time but are now coming to accept it, though Orthodox Jewish and Muslim faiths proscribe the practice, as do the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
In the UK, the first crematoria were frequently designed by municipal architects intent on creating a new icon of civic pride. However, in moving away from religious architectural traditions – particularly in relation to death and commemoration – the development of a secular architectural language proved more difficult than expected. In her definitive gazetteer of British crematorium architecture, Death Redesigned (2005), Hilary Grainger described how even the most adventurous of architects struggled, throughout the 20th century, to develop a new stylistic language for these secular but serious settings, variously adapting Gothic Revival, Italianate, Scandinavian Modernist and even Brutalist forms for crematorium buildings, which were required to communicate both civic authority as well as emotional resolution. Edwin Heathcote has, however, described the design of British crematoria as ‘largely a field of wasted opportunities’.
Source: Ludwig M Brinckmann / Alamy
The rituals of cremation have caused further aesthetic problems in addition to those of the building: what to do with the remains (or ‘cremains’ as the American funeral industry politely insists on calling them). Surrounding the crematorium you invariably find unremitting rows of standard rose bushes in lozenges of bare earth, further adding to the misery of the occasion, as do rows of ceramic niches in modest but dull outbuildings. Crematorium landscapes rarely rise above the strictly functional. It may be for this reason that memorial gatherings celebrating the life of the deceased now follow the crematorium committal itself, whether on the same day or shortly after, and often elsewhere, in more convivial surroundings.
More environmentally friendly processes of disposal now challenge cremation. The UK already leads the world in ‘natural’ burial, with more than 270 sites already open (compared with just four in the Netherlands), the majority of them unconsecrated. What is defined as natural burial has yet to be legally clarified, but the term usually describes the burial of unembalmed bodies in biodegradable coffins or shrouds, marked only by temporary memorials that will degrade naturally, leaving behind unadorned ‘natural’ woodland or landscape.
There are far fewer cost barriers to opening a woodland burial site in comparison with running a crematorium, although there are still specific environmental regulations, largely to do with proximity to watercourses. Providers include private companies, environmental charities, farmers, hippie entrepreneurs and the Co-op. While the fields, woods and forest groves have been relatively easy to locate and acquire, so far little attention has been given to designing a new generation of buildings appropriate to this new setting and its related rituals. This is now changing.
Source: RIBA Collections
The new Woodland Burial Park at Rainford in Merseyside, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios for GreenAcres Woodland Burials, is likely to become an important milestone in the development of a woodland architectural aesthetic. The client brief required a building that was ‘spiritually strong’, and with a clear sense of orientation. The dramatic shape of the principal building is that of a large orthogonal box rising at one end. The main facade is indented to draw people towards the entrance doors, enhanced by a threshold canopy. Once inside, mourners are led into the Gathering Hall, where a large glazed elevation at the furthest end discloses uninterrupted views to the west of the Windle Brook valley. This provides a panoramic backdrop to the catafalque (two plain wooden trestles) and the lectern, as the congregation awaits the service and committal. Two large hangar-like sliding glass doors set into the western elevation can be opened in good weather, allowing the coffin to stand in the open air.
Following the service, the body is accompanied to its final resting place in the adjacent woodland, where it is interred among other apparently random grave mounds. There is no strict regimentation of burial plots, added to which Rainford is managed as a working woodland, with neat pyramids of coppiced wood piled between the graves, supplying a naturalistic architectural element to the setting, as Loos would have admired.
Montjuïc Cemetery, Barcelona
Source: Cedwin Winkels
Elsewhere sites range from mature woodland, serviced by subtly designed timber chapels, meeting houses and ‘gathering halls’, to bleak set-aside arable fields with few, if any, redeeming topographical features. The price range reflects this continuum, alas, symbolising yet another disparity between rich and poor, even though death has often been described as the great leveller.
At the centre of all funerary architecture and culture is the human body. Kings had their pyramids and vast mausoleums, but for most of history the poor shared a common grave pit. One of the defining characteristics of modernity was that it created the expectation of the right to an individual burial plot and memorial, and with this right came an increasingly elaborate and highly individualised funerary culture. During this period the grave itself, however simple or elaborate its manifestation, possessed a powerful agency: it literally embodied the person, and architects could amplify or consolidate this presence in the world as they or their clients wished. With the rise of cremation (and more recently natural burial), the power of the grave as the locus of remembrance has been increasingly relinquished, concluding a long and important architectural legacy – though this of course may change again.