ollage by Simeon B Mihaylov
ollage by Simeon B Mihaylov

Dying in Architecture

‘Architecture can build bridges between the living and the dead and, to some extent, blur the boundaries.’

Nikolaus Hirsch

We make architecture to accommodate the life of people, but most people on Earth are dead people.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke wrote: ‘Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living’. That was back in 1986 when there were 3.5 billion people аlive. While today the disparity is smaller, the fact remains, the dead outnumber the living.

Modern medicine has increased our average lifespan, but it has also prolonged the period of dying. Most people nowadays die of cancer or heart disease, long chronic illnesses that see more of us than ever spending our last days, weeks, and months in hospitals and hospices. Why then have we settled for long bleak hallways, cold waiting rooms, and the dead glare of fluorescent light as the last place people see on Earth?

‘Where we die is a key part of how we die,’ says British architect Alison Killing, an advocate for ‘architecture that supports a good death.’

Killing, of the aptly named Killing Architects, is one of a small group of people who are rethinking the relationship between death and architecture. She points out that ‘hospitals, funeral chapels, crematoria, and cemeteries once used to set an example… and define values for architecture more widely’.

Killing gives Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Venice as a case in point. Inner courtyards, open corridors, and high ceilings bring light, fresh air, and comfort into the beautiful historical building. Compare this to modern hospitals. Have we forgotten that hospital architecture can bring delight, and not only function?

The relationship between architecture and death is as old as history itself, but its arc does not necessarily bend towards justice.

The individual grave and tombstone gained popularity during the Victorian era. While some might point to the vanity that comes along with lavish family tombs and grand funeral processions, there is a human side to these rituals as well. For many, the ideal burial is a private grave in a garden lot. The bereaved often find consolation in the gardening or upkeep of the allotted grave, a symbolic communion with their late loved ones. After all, it is for the pain and loss of the bereaved that cemeteries, tombs, and memorials are really built; the departed care little for their graves.

Cemeteries have become a key part of the modern city. In the 19th century Georges-Eugène Haussmann attempted to close the cemeteries of central Paris and move the remains outside the city. He faced violent public outcry. ‘Pas de cimetière, pas de cite,’ protested the people of Paris, without the cemetery, there is no city. Nowadays, the land allotted to the dead within cities is only expanding. For example, more than 60% of the London Borough of Newham is cemetery land.

However, the rapid growth of human population and the current aggressive urban expansion are forcing us to seek new ways of accommodating the dead.

Cremation is gaining in popularity in the West and so are other alternatives to burial such as resomation and promession. Architects are also seeking ways of increasing the density of cemeteries, vertical cemeteries being one such attempt. This pursuit of efficiency comes at a cost.

The constant need to make cemeteries, crematoria, and hospitals more efficient makes us only think of them as functional buildings. This cold pragmatic approach is only reinforced by the reluctance of modern society to discuss death. We engineer buildings of peak efficiency where we send our sick and dying down a labyrinth of white hallways, into sterilized rooms shut off from the rest of the world where they might breathe their last without us knowing or, God forbid, seeing it happen. We then gather the departed’s loved ones in factory-like buildings of grey concrete where they can say their goodbyes before the dead body is burned, dry-frozen, or aquamated.

Amidst this race for efficient disposal we forget, perhaps not altogether unintentionally, that we are dealing with one of the most difficult experiences in life. We forget that the dead are not gone and live on in the lives of those who love them. We forget that to express this continuing relationship has always been one of the pillars of architecture.

‘When we find a mound in the woods, six feet long and three feet wide, raised to a pyramidal form by means of space, we become serious and something in us says: someone was buried here. This is architecture.’

Adolf Loos

When we set about building our hospices and cemeteries, we should not forget that they are, in essence, sacred places. Places of healing and remembrance, crossroads between this life and what lies beyond it. To cater for the emotional and spiritual impact of death, to provide for the rituals that help us all reconcile with mortality, both the living and dying; this should be at least as important to these buildings as being efficient and functional. Indeed, that is their true function.

To accommodate for death is to accommodate for life. How we choose to do it gauges the maturity of our culture. Death rituals have some of the oldest and most hallowed traditions and we forget them at our own peril. Perhaps a little less timidity in the way we talk about death might help both the bereaved and those passing away. And if the role of architecture is to provide shelter for the human condition, it should least of all forget the fate we all share.