It is a myth that death has replaced sex as our big taboo. Death is easy to talk about. What is hard is to give it modern architectural form. Our cemeteries express a wider loss of faith in civic cultureby Ken Worpole / April 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Take a train out of any town in Britain, and before long you will pass a number of small churchyards and Victorian cemeteries: angelic, sepulchral, the headstones tilting any which way, the interiors thick with buddleia and mournfulness. In contrast, the cemeteries of the modern era are bleak, flat fields with serried rows of nondescript gravestones looking like an abandoned game of patience, with all the spiritual uplift of a supermarket car park. This is what we have done with death, these places seem to say: rid it of all its terror and replaced it with banality. It was not always this way.
The burial of the dead has not only given rise to architecture, but to some profound transformations of the human landscape. Cemeteries have also provided us with insights into past cultures, belief systems and genealogies. Most of what we know about the past, the Spanish architect Pedro Azara has written, comes out of the ground. This may not be true for much longer. The rapid rise of cremation in the second half of the 20th century has prompted two sociologists, Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw, to describe crematoria “as centres where social identities were annihilated.” Furthermore, we are now witnessing the growing popularity of “natural burial,” designed to leave no historical trace in the landscape whatsoever. According to Stephanie Wienrich at the Natural Death Centre, there are now some 160 woodland burial sites in Britain, starting from just one site in 1993 in Carlisle: even advocates of natural burial are surprised at the growth of this form of interment. While there are many merits to both cremation and ecological burial, the long-term effects of both are far-reaching and irrevocable.
In modern times, the disposal of the dead has become a technical rather than a teleological issue, yet this goes against the grain of history. The opening of P?re Lachaise at the beginning of the 19th century announced the beginning of a new culture of death in the west. It was of a piece with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French republicanism, designed to rid death of its morbid and religious terrors. In the 20th century, Stockholm’s Woodland cemetery pioneered an equally radical means of coming to terms with death in a modern, democratic society. Its sweeping lawns, grassy mounds and hilltop groves, wide open to the sky, drew attention away from the solitary grave, while the…