by Sarah Beste
Paraphrasing Doris Francis from a book review entitled Cemeteries as Cultural Landscapes, late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim postulated that the community of the dead is a mirror image of the community of the living. This observation made me think of the design of the cemetery where my mom, my grandparents, and a few other relatives have been laid to rest. The cemetery I speak of is Resurrection Cemetery in a northern suburb of Metro Detroit. It reminds me of a large subdivision, similar to the subdivisions surrounding the cemetery itself. The landscape of the Resurrection is relatively flat carpeted by green grass with a few small trees and a couple of buildings scattered about the area. The Mt. Elliott Group boasts that Resurrection Cemetery is the largest in the state of Michigan, with about 300 acres within the perimeter gates of the dearly departed community. Below is a map of Resurrection to illustrate how large it is, and how the streets between the numbered sections are similar to side streets.
Road map of Resurrection Cemetery (Left) (http://www.mtelliott.com/resurrection/); Map of cemetery and neighboring subdivisions (right) (Google Map)
This cemetery has a park-like feel to it. I’ve found myself going there to reconnect not only with my relatives, but also with nature. During the late spring through the early summer, I’ve seen people planting flowers at the cemetery plots or even just sitting in a chair or on a blanket in the middle of the headstones. This landscape allows us to interact with the dead in a calming environment that is not only green and full of life, it’s decorated with beautiful statues and buildings as well. Because of the aesthetics of the cemetery, the face of death as it can be perceived as ugly and scary is juxtaposed into something that’s natural, beautiful, and familiar.
A study of the this phenomena was published by Richard Francaviglia in 1971. Our connection to the dead is manifested through the physical landscape. Through his study of 5 different cemeteries on Oregon, he concluded that cemeteries can be viewed as changing and evolving cultural landscapes, a miniaturization and idealization of larger American settlement patterns. Cemeteries that look like familiar neighborhoods become simultaneously public and private, comfortable and familiar and are designed for the living and the dead to safely converge and interact in the same space. This kind of cemetery landscape is not uniform across the globe.
Cultural practice sets the guideline for what is proper disposal of the dead historically and contemporarily. For example, in pre-Civil War America, people in rural areas would bury their dead on their land or family plot which required few large cemeteries like Resurrection. While researching the subject of modern cemetery space, I came across an architectural blog promoting a design contest in Tokyo, Japan. The building design desired: a vertical cemetery. The blog was not that forthcoming with a reason why they were looking for a high-rise cemetery. However, in a separate site (bustler.net) the unknown author was candid about the growing and aging population demands and lack of physical space to give proper respect to recently and prospective deceased (sustainable?). When I recently revisited this blog, I found some of the finalists with amazingly beautiful and inspired designs that really spoke to the Japanese culture that was both aesthetically pleasing and gave respect to the death ritual in place. Check out the finalists here. They chose the winner in October 2016.
Upon further exploration, the reason for this search for innovative design became clear again in an older article in Gizmodo. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, the author, examined the very real issue of decreasing land area to use as cemetery space in Norway. An architecture student named Martin McSherry presented his design of a vertical cemetery at the Oslo Conference for Nordic Cemeteries and Graveyards in 2013. He had mixed reactions to his vision, mostly opposition among the conference goes who were primarily Norwegian funeral professions. But it seems that is the expected reaction. Any proposal for cultural change is met with at least a little resistance.
However, as Campbell-Dollaghan pointed out, there are other cultures and countries that have these landmarks in place already. Above-ground burial in mausoleums is a culturally accepted means of interment in Italy . We have mausoleums in North America. Essentially, above-ground burial is not a foreign concept. In fact, Santos, Brazil is known for the tallest cemetery (Memorial Necropole Ecumenica) in the world kissing the sky at 32 stories tall. Modern cultures that regard traditions as a guideline instead of a steadfast rule may adapt to new facilities or methods but some would not. American cultural practice has changed because of changes in social ideas on bodily desecration allowing for cremation opening the door for smaller mausoleums that hold urns to added to the cemetery landscape.
Just like the audience reaction McSherry had in Oslo when he introduced his skyscraper, there was resistance to the proposal for the high-rise cemetery in Tokyo. I can’t imagine all the questions the audience had when confronted with this new idea. Would the structure be public or restricted? With cemeteries designed like parks where it’s open and airy, it gives a different feel while communing with the dead. To sit in nature, plant flowers, sit on the grass and remember; the feeling is more like a public space. The picture that McSherry presented does give the open air feel to it, but that was a concept. Will all of them look like that or will the cemeteries have more of a corporate feel? Perhaps a more closed off and restricted feel? Will death be more sterile than it already is? I guess the only way to really get answers is to go to the communities (vacation to Brazil :D), and ask the people and experience the tallest cemetery itself.
Is this the future of other urban areas? Some would argue that “the future is tall” therefore we will see more buildings of all sorts being built up rather than across from grocery stores to cemeteries. I think that in North America the idea of a vertical cemetery may not seem fruitful now, but given time and necessity we may find a skyscraper cemetery in our own backyard.
Francis, Doris. “Cemeteries as Cultural Landscapes.” Mortality 8, no. 2 (2003): 222-27. doi:10.1080/1357627031000687442.
Francaviglia, Richard V. “The cemetery as an evolving cultural landscape.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61, no. 3 (1971): 501-509.
Rugg, Julie. “Lawn cemeteries: the emergence of a new landscape of death.” Urban History 33, no. 2 (2006): 213-233.
Schuyler, David. “The new urban landscape.” The redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth Century America (1986).