Can places for the deceased also be places for the living?

In many cultures worldwide the topic of death and everything surrounding it is still avoided, stigmatized, or tabooed. Otto Rank hypothesized that society builds protective mechanisms that prevent us from coming to terms with our mortality and Freud suggested that the reason taboos about death persist is the ghosts of the dead we are afraid of. Once the realization of death is put to the back of one’s mind, cemeteries become a direct representation of something that sparks fear — accepting one’s human nature and its mortality. In addition, the mixture of urban legends, myths, superstitions, and local gossip about the use of cemeteries for the practice of black magic, alcohol, or drug abuse creates a distasteful image. Nevertheless, the history of cemeteries proves that being near the dead was not always feared or avoided. 

Are there ways to reintegrate cemeteries into our urban landscape? And if so, what are the challenges we must tackle along the way? 

History Says…

Now let’s rewind to the part of history that can explain the emergence of cemeteries as we know them today. Victorians and their “Art of Dying” saw cemeteries as places for reflection that often attracted visitors for excursions. After the Industrial Revolution in Europe and after 1831 in the USA, cemeteries on the outskirts of cities and villages started to appear. Of course, we had cemeteries before then, but due to the growing population and increasing risks of disease, cemeteries in city centers or near churches were closed to new burials or purposefully moved. 

Rural or garden cemeteries that emerged in the mid-19th century in Europe and the USA did not resemble typical cemeteries: these vast territories looked a lot like public parks and even offered recreational activities. One could visit mausoleums or admire art and sculptures while being surrounded by greenery. Once actual public parks gained popularity, the need for garden cemeteries decreased and they lost their civic function. 

Cemeteries as society sees them

There are two main paradigms we can use to analyze cemeteries as part of the built urban environment.

Symbolic-Interactionism looks at the world we each create when assigning meaning to objects and interactions. For instance, placing flowers on graves has become so common that often when asked for the reason for such a small gesture, we cannot find the answer. For some, flowers are a symbol of life or respect and others bring them to show the remembrance of those who have passed. A symbolic-interactionist would say that cemeteries gained their social and cultural significance because they present a way for our society to maintain the bond between the living and the deceased with “what people do and the objects they deposit”. 

Structural-Functionalism focuses on how society works at a macro scale. It addresses morals, traditions, or laws to understand how they shape social life. Let’s use the previous example of bringing flowers to the graveyards. The burial processes and their specifics are intertwined with customs, religious beliefs, morals, and rituals, changing from country to country and religion to religion. In the USA, people often bring flowers to cemeteries as a tribute to those who died in military service on Memorial Day, an official national holiday. Followers of Judaism traditionally place stones on graves instead of flowers to show the “permanence of memory.” These practices originated from different meanings we assign to objects associated with the dead. Structural-Functionalism shows how the cultural and religious norms form our social relations which, once an individual is deceased, continue in the form of cemeteries. 

Thus, these paradigms complement each other: Symbolic-Interactionism explains the significance of our everyday actions and Structural-Functionalism describes how these daily interactions form traditions, rules, or customs specific for particular nations or religions. They both explain cemeteries as irreplaceable parts of the urban landscape that hold memorial, cultural, and historical significance. Once we understand their importance, everything becomes clear: rethinking cemeteries is the first step towards reintegrating them into our lives.

Public Spaces or Why We Didn’t Include Cemeteries

When we think about public spaces, we imagine parks, markets, and streets. We create experiences, share values, and build relationships in these locations. Despite the desires of urban planners and architects, it is city dwellers who define what deserves to be a public space and what does not. 

The fact that cemeteries became so secluded from the rest of the city (due to the zoning practices of locating cemeteries on the outskirts or the taboo that’s been created around them throughout history) showcases the need to reintegrate cemeteries into our urban landscape. City planners as well as residents are responsible for managing these public spaces in modern reality. It takes a motivated community to get started.

Public spaces are essential drivers of change, interaction, and unity for any community. Cemeteries also hold that potential. By bringing people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds together, they provide space for urban diversity. Cemeteries allow for a spectrum of experiences and if we allow them to regain their recreational nature, everyone will be able to find something of interest there.

Cemeteries in the Urban Landscape

Imagine a typical cemetery. Would you consider it a public space? Why or why not? Answering these questions can uncover not only your current stance but also provide expectations for what the cemeteries should look like in the future. 

Now let’s see what functions cemeteries have in modern reality and if those are similar to the qualities of a public space:

  1. Providing connection. Starting from a hunter-gatherer society, we, as humans, have evolved into highly social beings. We have a psychological need to associate with each other and feel connected to the people around us. Cemeteries play a crucial role in maintaining connections with those who have passed away. They unite families and communities by placing their dead nearby and allowing their loved ones to visit the deceased. 
  2. Supporting reflection. A cemetery is a reminder of your mortality. Thus, when we visit one and become surrounded by those whose time has ended, we tend to rethink our choices or assign different meaning to what it means to still be here, alive. 
  3. Capturing history. When people pass a cemetery, not many take a look at the graves, their decorations, and the plants and trees there. However, all of this captures the character of your location: the trends in names, the change in gravestone design, the greenery, mausoleums, chapels, plagues, monuments, and statues — all of this can tell as much about the history of a place throughout the years as a local museum.

This is some functionality, but can we add to it? 

Opportunities to Take

An issue we have with current cemeteries is the space they take up. Pay once — stay forever does not hold true anymore in a world that wants to continually grow in size, since there is only so much land. Modern urban planners and designers have already thought of how to revamp cemeteries. Their solutions include skyscraper cemeteries, green and coral reef burials, floating island cemeteries, and transforming bodies into light to illuminate the graveyard. Something that has been done with “traditional” cemeteries is the introduction of rental burial space, where a slot can be rented for varying time frames. Such reusing practices are now popular in England, Greece, Germany, and Portugal. 

The question that arises from the discussion above is: How can we work with the current state of cemeteries to increase their public recreational quality? Here is what we can do:

  1. Encourage historical and cultural exploration. This can be realized via the creation of cultural tours, excursions, and organized field trips with the goals to rediscover local traditions and designs, learn about local demographics, and reintegrate cemeteries into city life. The establishment of cultural and historic programming will motivate repeated use, but such actions must create a “sense of place” rather than bombarding the cemetery with activities for locals.
  2. Staff them. Only with the implementation of a development strategy, which will be pursued by the local staff, will the reintegration be plausible. The staff should interact with the visitors, guide them, and show them the available activities. Furthermore, with an organized team, discussion with the local community becomes possible. By involving the community, both residents and staff partake in participatory education in which all parties have a chance to voice their opinions on how the space should be used.
  3. Maintain them. Due to aging, erosion, and poor maintenance, many parts of cemeteries become less walkable, appealing, or representative of what they looked like before. Besides that, due to vandalism and inappropriate activities, such as drug dealing or alcohol abuse, cemeteries often become the perfect victims, which increases the maintenance issue. 

Tying It All Together

The contestation on how to use traditional cemeteries will go on. The solution I see is to break the stigma around cemeteries because they are the unique holders of culture, history, and values. By “activating” these places and involving them in our everyday lives, we begin the process of normalizing death, which in turn assists in seeing it as a part of our life — not a taboo we avoid. And once we understand that there is a due date for our lives, we can start to add meaning and put more effort into it. 

Careful intentional actions can bring life back to cemeteries and back to us.