Cultural Landscape Of Death English Literature Essay

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The burial ground or cemetery is one of the most enthralling cultural landscapes, addressing society's attitude towards death and the afterlife. Michael Howe said that "Throughout history the manner in which people dispose of their dead represents the highest ambition of any society" [1] . The American historian Lewis Mumford actually suggested that the city of the dead predated the city of the living. In The City in History he wrote: "The dead were the first to have permanent dwelling… the city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city." This idea "no cemetery - no city", could be expressed as: "no cemetery - no civilization" [2] .

Culture is built on man's awareness of his mortality, so if he ever intended to create something that transcends finitude it is through his architecture of death; his monuments, tombs and cemeteries. Here, culture is at work at its most primal, instinctive level. Throughout history culture has represented permanence, projecting an illusion of triumph over death; of man over nature.

The majority of civilizations throughout history commemorate their dead in some way. All strive to celebrate man's ability to defy death, ranging from the Neolithic graves and tombs of Djanet, Algeria, dating back 5 500 years, to the monolithic tombs of the Aztecs. Elias Canetti captures this most eloquently when he writes: "The purest expression of culture is an Egyptian tomb, where everything lies about futilely: utensils, adornments, food, pictures, sculptures, prayers, and yet the dead man is not alive" [3] 

Across the globe, the tomb has always served to reassure the significance of life. Against the ravages of time and the constant bombardment from nature, it represents continuity seeking to immortalise the person within.

Today, however, the presence of the funerary monument and the cemetery has significantly diminished within society, due to our mutated relationship with death. Despite the science of death being more clearly understood, it is now seen as an interruption to life, rather than its most innate conclusion; a culmination of a line as opposed to the completion of a circle. This newly formed reaction to death dubbed by psychologists and sociologists as the "denial of death" in modern or late modern culture has seen our burial grounds exiled to the fringes of our cities.

Many of our cemeteries lie neglected, overgrown, dotted with fallen headstones and sunken plinths. Here, time exposes the arrogance of culture by inevitably eroding the monument to dust. Even the most ambitious monuments that were intended to stand indefinitely will eventually return to the earth. This struggle of man and nature is inherent in the struggle of life over death. The permanence of death is likened to the intransience of culture and its eternal battle with ever changing nature and life.

The architectural expression of death

Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris and is an astonishing example of man's desire to create something immortal. With over 70 000 souls, varying from wealthy French aristocrats to Oscar Wilde, resting in its vast 44 hectares, the cemetery now serves as a veritable who's who of French history. However, at its time of conception it was merely a necessity for disposing of disease-ridden bodies in an overcrowded city. The situation of the cemetery outside of the city walls parallels the modern suppression of death. People feared the spiritual power of the dead and the insistent presence of death; it was not viewed as an integral aspect of life, but that which must be avoided.

This avoidance of death bred fear amongst society, scaring culture away from nature and creating a need to demonstrate man's ability to defy death. This was most commonly expressed through the constructing of indestructible stone tombs. Row upon row line the cobbled streets of the Parisian necropolis creating a "sacred fane in the eyes of survivors... an object of reverential interest to strangers and foreigners visiting the metropolis" [4] . The tombs serve as permanent resting places for the bones of the deceased, the soul coupled with the flesh of the body, moves on with time and nature, leaving an illusion of immortality within the almost unchanging stone landscape. Although these striking tombs will undoubtedly outlast the most persistent of mourners, they pose an awkward question: Do they really exist to acknowledge the presence, or the absence of the deceased?

Lewis Mumford, the social historian, believed Père Lachaise was but a "mess of stone vanities bespeaking obsolete beliefs about death and eternity". He felt that cemeteries and their monuments still offered little more than an image of "petrified immortality," a feeling of the "immobilization of life" [5] . Some graves are vandalised, some simply crumbling under the effects of time, inevitably they will all degrade, but for now Père Lachaise emblemises man's dominance over nature.

A more modern example of man's ability to bend nature to his means is the recent competition-winning entry by David Chipperfield for an extension to the Venetian cemetery, San Michele. This historic site, situated in the Venetian lagoon, currently encloses a 15th century church and convent, and has seen numerous alterations over the past 400 years. David Chipperfield describes it to have "evolved to a point where the romantic image of its outer face is in stark contrast to the somewhat dour municipal character of its interior" [6] . The proposal sought to address this imbalance by returning to some of the cemetery's former tectonic and physical qualities.

An island will be constructed parallel to the existing cemetery. This island will feature multiple tombs with a series of gardens, all at water level to "provide a greater sense of place not only for the cemetery but for the lagoon and Venice as a whole". [7] One must note the irony of having to import soil in order to bury the dead. Man's desire to dominate nature in order to achieve a symbolic act of lowering the dead into earth, in such an inappropriate site, is typical of traditional cultural beliefs bearing more importance than natural constraints.

The eternal struggle between earth and water is particularly apparent here, as the ground will be level with the surrounding river. If sea levels were ever to rise, as many scientists predict, then this new monument to the dead will be consumed by nature, drowned in the waters from which it emerged .

Other twentieth century cemeteries have drawn on this trope of ruin, pre-empting their own sorry fate. By forecasting their own demise and predefining the effects of nature it adds an ironic cultural significance to these architectural monuments. Instead of lasting forever, proudly denoting the grave beneath and projecting an interminable image, they obediently cooperate with the elements, time and nature.

The cemetery at Igualada, Barcelona harbours this inherent knowledge of the detrimental effects of nature. It appears that the architect, Enric Mirralles, is seeking to demonstrate the delicacy of human life through the frailty of architecture, given how architecture itself is constantly built and demolished throughout time. The burial niches appear to be dug into the ancient river bed that historically flowed across the site. The niches are all embedded in the soil, suggesting a day when they will be buried completely and reclaimed by the earth; a time when nature and the elements will have made an authentic ruin out of the architect's imitation.

The architectural form of the seating on the route that negotiates the different levels can be likened to that of fallen headstones that commonly dot our own nation's ruined graveyards. This return to nature could take just a matter of years; if the wire mesh supporting the surrounding cliff was to fail the whole site would be buried. The plants that have already begun to encroach would engulf the cemetery, completely encapsulating it in nature. In some ways it is extraordinarily appropriate for a place of entombment to bury itself. However, this notion of self destruction goes against the primal nature of a cemetery: to negate the temporal world and project an illusion of eternity, exposing it to be temporary and destructible.

By considering such bold architectural projects as Igualada cemetery, it becomes apparent that integrating the awkward subject of death into the public realm is less troublesome than effectively reconciling a natural landscape with an architectural scheme that addresses the plight of human mortality, through which man's extinction or disappearance over time is foretold. This leads to the question: how can we design a scheme that actively backs nature over monumental culture? Particularly when the very raison d'être of a cemetery is to provide the illusion of immortality to those left behind. Should one conclude that the project does not meet its inherent brief, failing at its most basic level? Or should we consider that nature is perhaps not simply the opposite of culture; that no longer is death the mere antithesis of life?

Cemeteries and monuments are the prime examples of how culture expresses new attitudes towards human mortality and nature, as well as how we perceive attitudes already prevalent. The key question is how can architecture re-examine and refresh this cultural landscape to allow for a scheme that can be seen to threaten the very existence of culture, conflicting with the preservationist nature of human civilization?

A solution is that by re-orientating the architectural expression of death towards ruination, cooperating with the elements as well as time, in a similar manner to Igualada, we can make prevalent the timeless idea of the "circle of life". This is a universal concept, particularly significant in the Hindu faith, where the cycle of birth, growth, death, decay and renewal is embraced. This idea of a cyclic return to nature is perhaps what has lead to the increase in popularity of the woodland burial, often within a dense forest, providing the dead with a place of sleep.

On the southern outskirts of Stockholm, Sigurd Lewerentz and Erik Gunnar Asplund sought to imbue their new woodland cemetery with a " sacred quality by using landscape as the essential point of departure for their architectural solution". [8] By embracing the concept of life being cyclic, much like many oriental beliefs, Asplund and Lewerentz rejected the existing prototypes for cemeteries. Instead of conforming to the idea of "the city of the dead or paradise garden" they used "forms embodying more primitive Nordic affinities with nature in order to situate their design within regional cultural traditions". [9] 

The architects began by examining the site, a wooded tract encircled by agricultural land, dotted with quarrying scars and ruptured by a granite ridge. By designing in conjunction with nature, a symbiotic scheme evolved, where nature and culture could exist in one harmonious landscape. Nature was no longer the enemy of culture. Instead, humble paths lined with graves were threaded through the pine forest; large burial mounds arose to "reaffirm the primitive quality of the terrain". [10] The architects enhanced the natural attributes of the landscape, evoking associations of death and rebirth through the use of contrasting elements, such as the ridge and the valley, the earth and the sky and the forest and the clearing, creating a landscape of spiritual dimension without being limited to traditional Christian iconography.

Although the relationship of culture and nature is addressed effectively at the metaphysical level through the subtle integration of object into the landscape, the physical tombstones are still a very permanent reminder of man's desire to immortalise the deceased. Although small, these monuments clash with the initial cyclic vision. Many historians, including Mumford, complained that monuments such as tombstones "sprang not out of life and its renewing impulses, but out of death: a desire to wall out life, to exclude the action of time, to remove the taint of biological processes, to exclude the active care of other generations by a process of architectural mummification" [11] 

This leads to the question of whether the monument could be redefined as a tribute to the temporality of life, with a view to life and time being the same process [12] . By considering that culture decays into nature, one can appreciate that they are not complete opposites, but nodes on the same journey, then this process or journey can be more interesting than either node.

Bearing this notion in mind, we may reconsider Miralles' Igualada cemetery. Time is present here in all aspects from its eroded stone surfaces to its uneven topography, and even in the rusting of the furnishings. Weathering and deterioration are visibly promoted, they are combined with its perpetual ruination and encroachment of vegetation. Nature's bombardment is innate within its design no more apparent than in the architect's treatment of the flooring. Planks of wood float through the gravel symbolising the Stygian ghost of the ancient river that once flowed through the valley, a haunting reminder that death transports us into the underworld. Igualada's most appealing conflict of culture and nature has nothing to do with romanticising the picturesque garden or the ancient temple, nor the fact that it fails to conform to the Catalonian cemetery vernacular of walled gardens, such as the Montjuic dramatically imposing itself of the city's hillside. Instead, we find the most engaging aspect to be the conflict in the trope of ruin.

It is the very act of ruination that intrigues us; it is so visually engaging, so gripping, that even the least architecturally minded of us who view the site cannot help but be intrigued by its transitory nature, its "temporal ambivalence and its role in the cycle of decay and renewal". [13] Everything about this scheme implies a time when the cemetery may have completed a full circle and no longer exists. Could the monument be redefined to act as a tribute to the fragility of life as opposed to an everlasting symbol of immortalisation?


Since man first constructed shelter, so too would he attempt to create shelter for his soul, lingering tributes to the deceased reflecting religious beliefs that were often intended to echo through eternity. Over time these monuments, these imitations of immortality, have become more permanent, more indestructible, driven by an increase in modernist ideals coupled with the rise of Christianity. They symbolise the limitless extents of man's achievement, by conquering death and projecting an illusion of triumph; culture appears to dominate nature.

Pêre Lachaise and San Michele are but two of thousands of examples in the Western world; monolithic cities of the dead, acknowledging the deceased for years to come. Igualada belongs to a time, not of this world but also not of the next, suggesting an integration of culture with nature and time. It is the journey that makes the project so successful; the act of ruination. By returning to the earth piece by piece, Igualada accepts culture conflicts with nature, expressing this inherent battle to the bereaved in a subtle manner that can only be found when looked for. The beautifully landscaped woodland cemetery seeks to unify culture with nature far more obviously, although still expressing man's desire to negate the temporal world and defy the ravages of time through the medium of headstones.

Researching this topic has thrown up many contentious issues surrounding death. Whether life continues after death is a subject that can never be scientifically proven, and therefore will always induce conflicting views, but by considering this threshold we can refine our own opinions on current culture.

I believe that nature is the most complete and innate end for culture; at some point it will consume man and all that he has built. Therefore, by pre-empting this conclusion and giving our dead back to nature along with any physical monument to them we are completing the divine circle of life. Can we not return to a time when graves were denoted by a small timber cross that decays with the deceased? Once the body has decayed, so too has the monument, allowing all natural landscapes to be memorials of the dead.

Man is one with nature: nature forms the building blocks of man's body, and the decaying body of man becomes building blocks of nature. When we view anything in nature, let it be a reminder of those that have passed. Truly accepting culture as part of nature, is accepting nature as the cultural landscape of death and of life.