Green to the end
“We have had bribes offered […] but we have nothing to be bribed for. We have no room.”
So said Dominick Tarantino from Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, one of the first burial places to reach capacity. No new cemeteries have been established for fifty years, so inflated prices of New York real estate continue after death, where residents vie to be buried where they lived.
As cities continue to densify, will this scenario be repeated everywhere? Historically, municipal parks and cemeteries were planned in tandem. The Rural Cemetery Movement played a significant role in North America’s park and landscape architecture history:
Planned as serene and spacious grounds where the combination of nature and monuments would be spiritually uplifting, they came to be looked on as public parks, places of respite and recreation acclaimed for their beauty and usefulness to society…Such settings stirred an appreciation of nature and a sense of the continuity of life.
- National Register Bulletin
This tradition evolved into the current perpetual care lawn cemeteries and memorial parks. Large-scale maintenance required mechanized equipment, resulting in a flattened landscape and standardized markers flush to the ground. The appearance and atmosphere of nature and individuality were erased. While continuing to memorialize the dead, such cemeteries no longer serve the living.
So how should sustainable development address cemeteries? Land needs to be highly functional, ideally serving multiple purposes, as it in the Rural Cemetery Movement. Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery is an outstanding example, serving as a respectful memorial, beloved park and tourist attraction. Renowned Swedish architects Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz (also trained as a landscape architect) designed the park for a 1915 design competition.
Woodland is dominated by the natural forest setting, with grave markers integrated into the meadows and trees. Although it has the capacity to be the resting place for Stockholm residents for generations, “it has an intimate and other-worldly feel once one is alone in the woods,” according to Ken Worpole. This design demonstrates an acceptance of death as part of life, rather than something to be resisted through the permanent occupation of parcel of land.
Woodland Cemetery…achieves that most difficult task of all: to naturalize death and make it a serene and consolatory experience, achieved only through the most artfully cultivated mixture of human sympathy, exquisite design and, most of all, a respect for the vulnerability and equity of the human condition.