While cemeteries have long served as a place in which we can honor and remember our loved ones, they are also often places that showcase architecture, and landscape design. In the late 19th century, cemeteries evolved from overcrowded and unsanitary urban spaces into rural, park-like social centers. In cities that lacked public parks, cemeteries became popular destinations for picnics, holidays, and other family gatherings.
Since then, the way we think about cemeteries and their design has evolved even further. Traditional casket burials and cremation services are increasingly being replaced by biodegradable urn pods and ashes turned into diamonds, among other innovations. What implications might these developments have on the space and design of cemeteries? And how can these memorials be designed to consider both post-mortem rituals and environmental concerns?
In a 1976 lecture given by Carlo Scarpa titled “Can Architecture be Poetry?” the Venetian architect said, “I wanted to show some ways in which you could approach death in a social and civic way, and further, what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life—other than these shoeboxes.” Scarpa was referring to the Brion Vega cemetery, a project he had started several years earlier and one which he envisioned as not just a resting place but a commentary on mortality for generations to come. Scarpa himself would be buried there only two years later.
One of the most important sites of postmodernism is also a cemetery. Regarded as one of Aldo Rossi’s most important works, the San Cataldo Cemetery is radically different to Scarpa’s intricately detailed Brion Vega. Where the Brion Vega cemtery is unfolds over an intimately designed landscape, San Cataldo is a veritable “city for the dead” with a courtyard that frames a cubic ossuary sans window panes, doors, and a roof.
But however influential these projects may be, neither Brion Vega nor San Cataldo are relevant references for the challenges facing present day memorial design. They are memorials as architectural exercises, disconnected from environmental factors or or spatial concerns.
In the recently published "Death + Architecture" published by Arch Out Loud, Karla Rothstein of Columbia University’s DeathLAB discusses how both cemeteries and cities might transform to accommodate death. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau project that in 2050 more than 4.25 million people will die in just the US alone. With this in mind, Rothstein’s team designed a remembrance site called “Constellation Park” which utilizes existing infrastructures and urban spaces to support an environmentally friendly network of vessels in the skyline. Suspended underneath the Manhattan Bridge, the individual pieces together form cylindrical configurations of light, acting as both memorial and public art. The energy of urban life around the site accommodates the stages of grieving and remembrance. This project is a reminder of the physical finality of death while also recognizing the transience of life - integrated within the fabric of the city itself.
The winning design of an Arch Out Loud competition featured in the same book shows another way of thinking about remembrance in the afterlife. The winning entry was designed around the motto “the end of life is not death; being forgotten is.” The concept employs red biodegradable balloons with a small box of the deceased person’s ashes inside. Over time, the balloon begins to rise, and pauses each time a family member comes to visit the balloon. Eventually, the person will be forgotten, the balloon will soar into the sky, blow into the atmosphere, and explode. With the rain and the wind, the ashes will slowly fall back down to earth. This process serves as a reminder to everyone in the city that they should visit their family members, and that the process of life and death is fleeting.
Designs which help us mourn the loss of friends and family are becoming more and more related to architecture with each passing day. By further evolving the relationship between architecture and death, we may be able to find new ways to allow people to respectfully leave the earth without any long term negative impact. If not, we may harm the environment, run out of space, and face grave consequences for our actions.