Two weeks ago I quoted Dan Cruickshank's provocative assertion that we may know an era by how it treats its dead. Last week's shocking photographs of bodies haphazardly spread on the floor of a hospital chapel of rest put this notion, rather brutally, to the test.
For the philosopher AC Grayling, writing in the Guardian , the outrage that greeted the images reflects our unease with the fact of death.
For doctors, who confront this fact every day of their working lives, there is little problem with such a summary way of dealing with the deceased. For the architect this episode reveals that death is being dealt with as a series of theatrical snapshots: we have inadvertently been shown the back-stage chaos.
Death reveals all too baldly the differing pulls on the organisation of space of function and culture. Function demands swift action in the face of the immediate deterioration of the body; culture demands the maintenance, until burial or cremation, of the semblance of the integrity of that body. On a recent crit, I gazed, openmouthed, when a student, through a series of minutely observed drawings followed what happens to the body after death, up to, and after, cremation. Function was addressed through culture, because the student was determined to maintain the reality of the dignity of the body rather than its illusion. Hence, his investigation fearlessly confronted precisely the places where, as in the event at the Bedford hospital, functions cease to respect culture: bones, for example, do not disintegrate into a decorous pile of dust in heat, but have to be crushed.
If the architects of the Victorian era gave death its grand monuments to illusion, perhaps we may hope that our era's architects will find the way to combine respect and love with the reality of the disintegration of the body.