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Houses of the dead

review: landscape books

Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West By Ken Worpole. Reaktion Brooks, 2003. 224pp. £22 Compared with the other rites of passage in our lives, death is becoming increasingly invisible. Weddings are obsessively elaborate, birthdays have become carnivals of food and drink, but death is generally marked by an insipid crematorium ceremony followed by a return to business as usual.

The need for grief and mourning hasn't disappeared - it is simply that we have lost the art of designing places and ceremonies that properly express our sense of loss.

Ken Worpole wants to discover whether there is a contemporary language of landscape and architecture which can meet the needs of the bereaved; not just the personal grief of individuals, but the public memory of past events. He approaches the subject by exploring how the same problem has been dealt with at other times and in other countries. He casts his net wide, but generally confines himself to Christian traditions of burial and commemoration, and it is the design of cemeteries that interests him most.

Like Worpole's other writings, the result is an intensely personal (but never selfindulgent) analysis in which the direction of the argument is sometimes unclear but the description never dull. At every stage what he has to say is supported by wonderful photographs taken by his wife Larraine; this is as much her book as his.

It comes as no surprise to learn that cemeteries and memorials, from ancient burial mounds to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington DC, reflect the social values and beliefs of those that produced them. The houses of the dead are as distinct as the homes of the living, and often mirror each other to an uncanny extent. The Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri includes houses dug into the tufa rockface and also above-ground streets of tombs. PÞreLachaise Cemetery in Paris, begun in 1805, and its many imitators, are packed with tombs arranged along sinuous paths just like the villas on suburban streets. In a far more austere manner the sanctity of the individual, equal in death, is represented in the uniform headstones of the war cemeteries for the First and Second World Wars. Set in gardens, with Arts and Crafts lodges and trellises, these are as much of their time as their Victorian predecessors.

History provides no direct answers, but instead brings us back to the question: what is the appropriate landscape of memory for our own times? For many people the most appealing model, though now more than half a century old, is the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm. There, Asplund and Lewerentz created a burial place where memorials and buildings are subordinate to the forested landscape. But now there is an alternative model that takes the supremacy of landscape to the ultimate extreme.

According to the idea of natural burial, the whole of a cemetery is intended to return to a natural, uncultivated state, leaving no mark of individual graves.

Confronted with the dire state of most municipal cemeteries, and the meaningless design of most crematoria, this seems an ideal solution. Although Ken Worpole has enjoyed the permanent reminders left by previous generations, the puritan anonymity of a return to nature is the positive note he ends on.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

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