The UK’s price for burials, cremations, land plots and all other services in the domain are steadily increasing every year. Funeral poverty is a new form of impoverishment for families who can’t afford these services. Dense compact cities like London don’t give the opportunity for space, so if not funeral poverty it becomes social poverty, depriving the rituals of the celebration of death. The spatial and infrastructural potentials for the United Kingdom and its management of death are vast and need to be addressed.
This self-initiated speculative project isn’t about a specific design, or a precise series of actions to replace the present traditions. The project is about questioning the way we are currently approaching this inevitable built environment in the UK.
By designing mausoleums that can be built by the family and friends of those passed away, a creation of new social spaces emerges from the amalgamation of these structures. The mausoleums proposed incite moving out of the dense cities, encourage social interactions by creating a new ritual of building & look at dimensional arrangement in structure, pushing spatial exploration and re-defining what a conventional memorial space can be.
What prompted the project?
There seems to be an architectural taboo when discussing how to re-approach the traditions of death. Often playing the role of the mediator instead of the instigator, architects seem to follow the conventions and traditions when programmatically designing, instead of re-designing them. A strand of architecture that although seems to have sometimes disappeared which has the potential to respond to such issues is speculative architecture.
The project started with the exploration and fascination into speculative architecture and its impact especially in how this is able to push and challenge established conventions & traditions. Such projects are used as a critique of our social, political, environmental and economic approach to our way of living that directly impact the surrounding infrastructure. As a result, they have an effect on our perception of living, and subsequently dying. Among other things, CJ Lim’s excellent book “Inhabitable Infrastructures: Science fiction or urban future?” both touched and shocked me, especially when investigating the management of deceased bodies in the Ganges River, India. This led me to research into the deeper spatial and infrastructural impacts of the traditions of death, and how speculative architecture can be a tool to address this issue.
How are cemeteries integrated within the city of London? How has this changed as the city has grown and developed over time?
London’s fabric is almost sprawl like for cemeteries, especially pre-Abercrombie (being the re-planning of London and Greater London post-WW2). Cemeteries generally installed themselves in small pockets of space surrounding other infrastructures, the 17th/18th century being the epitome of this trend. Like social farming you would see pop up nowadays, the death obsessive Victorian-era seemed to encourage the proliferation of these spaces around the already dense city of London. Slowly, some of these spaces where then dug-up and moved away, for instance when the Henry Barlow rail line to St Pancras was built in the 1860’s (interestingly, novelist Thomas Hardy, at the time a young architecture student, was among the people who took part in the procedure). Although common, the moving of cemeteries was and remains quite difficult in terms of license, as it is still under the authority of the Church of England, furthermore re-burials are quite tricky to deal with.
A 2010 report by Dr Julie Rugg, a cemetery expert of the University of York, found eight boroughs cemeteries were already full and nine more would run out of space by 2020 in London. The city is progressively becoming spatially unstable for the needs of our current traditions. There is a genuine concern that needs to be addressed and expanding/ re-burials aren’t sustainable alternatives for the (hopefully not soon) future of an already dense city.
Did you look to other countries and religions and their burial traditions for reference? If so which ones?
Although not perfect, there seems to be a correlation with countries that have stronger Buddhist, Shintoism or Hindu (amongst others) affiliations and the more relatively more positive dealing of spaces for death. The traditions from these religions are generally pro-cremation, which seemingly is becoming vital if we are to continue living in a world that continually produces cemeteries and other related spaces. Pro-cremation countries such as Japan, Thailand and Taiwan for instance seem to have their current traditions more aligned with current and possibly future sustainable methods for spatial & infrastructural modifications.
On the flip side with the previous example of the Ganges river in India, cremation and its management can be a massive issue. The quality of water is almost 3000 times over the ‘World Health Organizations’ acceptable ‘safe’ limit due to bacteria coming partly from cremated humans and animals, being dumped in the river ritually. CJ Lim’s research shows that “(…) an estimated 80% of all health problems and 1/3 of deaths in India are attributable to water-borne diseases.
Burying is also more communal in these parts of the world; the process is less capitalist and automated than some Western countries. As one Eastern tradition, with for instance the process of embalming encompasses this idea perfectly, adding unnecessary steps that are expensive, environmentally unsafe, obstruct socially and create this idea that only the concluding part of the ritual matters.
A couple short case studies where done about other countries for comparison. One for Germany with examples of Sophienkirch and Leise Park, as well as Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial, as they had opted to include graveyards and memorial spaces in the active fabric of their city. Pupils at the Sophienkirche daycare play soccer near a headstone in the center’s playground, jungle-gyms in Berlin’s Leise Park makes it a multi-use park/playground/cemetery space. Moreover, the Holocaust Memorial serves a plurality of functions yet conserves and safeguards its initial goal of creating a space for remembrance. You can observe kids that play ‘it’ within this large labyrinth, young adults using it as social spaces for drinks, older generations come to contemplate…
Socially accepted, it’s civic engagement potentials make Germany one the most interesting cases for the spatial management of death.
How are other countries dealing with this problem?
Space is expensive. The same spatial issues are seen around all four corners of the world, each having a slightly different tailored problem. In Hong Kong, thousands of families store ashes in sacks in funeral homes, while they wait years for a space in either public or private cemeteries. Israel has approved the creation of multi-store underground burial tunnels, despite opposition from some Orthodox Jews. Venice’s San Michele island cemetery in Venice is oversubscribed, with bodies removed after they have decomposed cyclically. Even after the economic, social and spatial issues, even the most environmental method is still yet unrefined, with some countries not agreeing until green-cremation is further developed.
What role does architecture hold in the process and ritual of the burial?
Architecture defines spaces. I don’t believe architecture can define rituals, but it can set conditions for it, the same way a ski-piste doesn’t define the mountain but creates the possibility of a path from it.
Specific interactions aside, I regard the creation of infrastructure a strong director for rituals, so for burials I believe that it can change perspectives and potentially incite more positive environmental/spatial/economic/social decisions.
For example, the qualities of my project have the intention of encouraging the process of making (social), partially self-building to save costs on letting a company do the work (economic) and having the mausoleums outside of dense cities (spatial).
How and to what extent has our approach to this ritual evolved?
Traditions are slowly shifting, as countries are getting susceptible to the issues coming from their management of death. In 2015 the US, a predominantly Catholic country (traditionally pro-burial), had a rate of cremation at 48.5%, and it’s projected rate for 2035 is at 78.8%. Cremation goes up, social participation goes down, environmental concerns are pushing for better ways to cremate, politics clash with religious authorities.
Emotionally, we seem to have somewhat mechanised our rituals as we ourselves as inhabitants keep growing at increasing rates. There’s a general loss of meaning to our rituals when you visualize the ridiculousness of thousands of ashes around the world stored in depots waiting for space to liberate, when other methods that are ‘non-traditional’ can be immediate solutions.
What defined the approach to the specific problem?
Three parameters had to be considered: financial poverty, loss of potential multi-use space & celebration.
The increasing price of funeral and related services are so sever that they are creating a new form of financial poverty. And these increasing prices emanate from the growing of conglomerations dominating once locally owned businesses. The mechanic and capitalist approach to death has rendered it increasingly impersonal.
Moreover, cemeteries in the UK aren’t multi-functional enough. They serve the unique role memorial spaces (unlike for instance Germany), yet they occupy a lot of space in dense cities.
Finally, the loss of craft and time spent on funerals from families, desensitize people to traditions around ceremonies celebrating the lives of individuals.
Programmatically the speculative proposition would, to respond to these three parameters, do the following.
Allocate space outside the cities for the funeral, storage for ashes/memorabilia (no burials) and consequently creating new memorial spaces. Create a program, regardless of religious orientation, where family & friends of the deceased get the blueprints to build their own mausoleums, creating new public spaces to celebrate the lives of the intended. Increase state aid for funeral services, since they have been frozen since 2003 and use it to pay from governmental help for construction, by hiring architecture firms in the UK. The more help from family & friends of the deceased, the less expensive the construction cost. Use of the built space as a memorial space but moreover a new public space, creating multi-purpose areas.
Are you interested in developing this project and theme further?
As this was a short month project, I’m hoping to use the research present to investigate the subject for my final 3rd year BA dissertation paper into much further detail.The case study was for the UK, so not only would I love to investigate the kingdom in more depth (for instance, finding a specific plot of land to experiment, analysing the way it could function). But also, either having the scope open to the rest of Europe for individual and tailored case studies, or even looking at countries that seem to have the best current management and looking at ways to potentially further improve them (eg: Japan, Taiwan…).
Through these analyses I would then further speculate & design more systems to combat each problem (for instance, finding a structural way to improve cremation). These speculations might remain in narrative drawings remaining in non-traditional orthographic views or potentially be pushed into tangible models.