Green to the end

New York's Washington Cemetery. Thanks to Limonada on Flickr for the great Creative Commons photo!

“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.

The natural landscape of Stockholm's Woodland Cemetery. Thanks to Holger Ellgaard for this Creative Commons photo!

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.

– Worpole

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2 Responses to “Green to the end”

  1. Karen Fung said:

    Sep 20, 10 at 12:04 pm

    Timely and interesting topic – I’ve been encountering it myself. It’s not unheard of for cemetary plots to become a form of investment speculation as well, as the scarcity increases or a kind of “tourism” occurs where people with different ties might choose to be buried, say, in Canada, for a variety of reasons beyond simply citizenship. A situation similar to that described in New York is happening in many Asian countries as well (story:

  2. Courtney Campbell said:

    Sep 21, 10 at 7:11 am

    Taking green burial a step further, the Denman Island Memorial Soceity is working towards establishing a “green cemetery” meaning no headstones, no enbalming fluid, no landscaping, and caskets made of biodegradable material such as untreated wood or even a cardboard box. The cemetery land is undeveloped second growth forest and will remain essentially unchanged once it becomes a cemetery, except the development of walking trails. GPS coordinates will be taken for grave locations and nothing more. Stay tuned. Very cool.