Purpose of cemeteries? To defeat death of course!

12 Dec

This blog is an answer to James Leedam of Native Woodland Natural Burial Sites. Thanks James for opening this conversation up!

I’ve given some time to this response, please take your time reading it.


As long as possible, without getting too technical and reducing the question to a number of years. That is how the ancients thought about it and I don’t think humans have fundamentally changed since then. As individuals and as a culture we may have forgotten why we erect memorials but the same archetypal need slumbers latent within us. It just needs reawakening by the appearance of new memorials that actually appeal aesthetically and symbolically – the old Victorian stuff has long become morbid and meaningless to most people.


An ancient boulder slumbers in a forest – as a memorial to a human life?

I advocated that idea somewhat off-handedly – but I maintain that something like that would have a postmodern-primitive appeal. Which is to say, a timeless one – and there is nothing more desirable in a cemetery than a sense of timelessness. It is what a cemetery is all about – a place for people to escape for a moment from the inexorable changes that time brings.


Death is the ultimate consequence of time; by resisting the visible changes of time with enduring cultural landmarks we symbolically resist death. Cemeteries that achieve a sense of timelessness psychologically “defeat death” . But many cemeteries actually emphasize the victory of time and death. Anything trendy does this – because the eclipsing of a trend is precisely another victory of time. Victorian cemeteries were once upon a time fashionable – now all they do is remind us of a specific moment in the past which is dead and gone and irrelevent to most of us. These cemeteries are not, and never were, free of time but rather locked to a narrow moment in it, a momentary aesthetic, a momentary belief system, which is now long gone.

We should learn from that – a new aesthetic of cemeteries should not fall into the trap of trendiness – or its opposite, nostalgia. Both will only create more symbols of the victory of time and consequently cause their own failure as cemeteries.

Of course we cannot ever escape from the style of our time, but this should be our aim at least – to transcend it by providing symbols of timelessness, or timeless symbols.

How do we achieve such a death-defeating sense of timelessness? The easiest and best way IMHO is to 1) place the cemetery into a natural context (but see + below) since nature undergoes the changes of time only very slowly and then by definition with natural grace; and 2) add human cultural artifacts which also age only slowly and gracefully.

We like the look of weathered old gravestones – this is precisely because they resist time, but without denying it. A titanium gravestone would not have the same appeal because it would symbolize a pathetic denial of reality. A tombstone and a cemetery should age gracefully. The closer the materials and forms of the artefacts are to the natural ones (without hiding themselves as nature) the better this integration and graceful-aging-together will be.

Zentralfriedhof  – golden leaves fall year after year on the same mellowing memorials.

If we can achieve this, people will be drawn again tocemeteries as sanctuaries of timelessness – and what more do we need  in our time-enslaved world than just such refuges!? (At a minimum, such a place provides room for hope of liberation from time’s tyranny.)

(By the way, in response to your belief that permanent on-site markers are not essential, this last point above is one reason why permanent memorials are fundamental – without cultural artifacts that resist time (and yet slowly succumb) there is no sense of the symbolic defeat of death which every human wants, however subconsciously hidden it may be in most. If these artefacts are personal and connected with a place, as gravestones with names and images are, then the defeat of death is even more striking. A central stone temple or any building may defeat time just as well, but it is not personal.)

PRACTICALITIES. (65 million deaths a year, 7 billion people living people needing graves and memorials):

This is also my big question, the reason we came up with Perpetua’s Garden.

Firstly, we can thankfully subtract the millions of Indians who want no memorials – the fuel for their cremations is another huge environmental question, but not mine here.

Secondly, we can calculate a smaller memorial space for each Western or Chinese cremation – and that choice is rapidly becoming the majority worldwide. (I have a simple and effective idea for this which I am amazed doesn’t yet exist.)

Thirdly, as you say, whether for a burial or a cremation, a memorial can be designed* (see below) to memorialize a few people – assuming there is a natural relationship between them. Bundling unconnected people into unwanted last-intimacies would not be a nice thing.

And lastly – and from my perspective most importantly - there is in fact a wealth of suitable land available, whose use would not subtract a square inch of green-field or “land for life-uses”, as I put it in my website. We just need to know where to look.

On this last note: we are keen to get professionals like yourselves into the Perpetua’s Garden initiative. We have what we think is a potential answer to the space problem, one which would allow decent and enduring memorialization and the creation (not just the conservation) of green spaces.

If any of you would be interested, contact Perpetua’s Garden.

(* And why is so little attention given by designers to memorials? An All-Saints Day article in the local newspaper suggested it is because designers are typically too young to be naturally interested in this. A pity for us and for them, because it would be a huge market and an interesting new challenge for them, far more so than designing yet another kitchen container or light fixture.)

(+ If we expel the cultural aspect completely (as an extreme version of woodland or green cemetery does), then we have no symbolic fight against death and time but a perfect surrender – dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and nothing more. We must all accept that our bodies return to ash or dust – but to embrace that as a spiritual triumph or goal and not put it in its place as mere physical reality is to my mind a superficial view of things.)

PS: Regarding your first question: the information on a memorial stone can be based on people’s desires. Provide the market with options and let it decide. As a cemetery operator, you come up with various feasible alternatives, market them all, and see what catches on. People can decide for themselves, but designers and cemetery operators have to do the thinking and provide alternatives – the public should not be restricted to one option, or worse, to none at all!


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