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Forget about the living – what about the architecture of death?

Guy Marriage is an architect at First Light Studio and a senior lecturer at Victoria University. Although he normally creates buildings and concentrates on the best in life, here, in an extract from Death and Dying in New Zealand, Marriage asks the tricky question of ‘If life is for living, then what is architecture for the dead?’

Humans are mortal – we are born, we live, we die and, in between, we celebrate what little time we have on earth. Once we’re gone, then we’re gone for good, only existing through other people’s memories of us, growing murkier all the time. If only we could live longer, we cry! If only there was some form of permanent manifestation of our lives! 

There is, of course, a solution that lives on where we stop short: architecture. A building can – and should – last much longer than a human life. It has, in effect, a life of its own, with its own conception (the idea springing into the mind of the architect), a fulsome creation (teams of builders bringing elements together and fixing them in place) and, with any luck, many varied lives (a shop, a home, a factory, a meeting place, a learning facility and so on). Eventually, it too may face the final curtain and be returned, as we all are, back to dust once more. 

There are special kinds of architecture that deal with death. Some deal with the living and the process of dying, like hospitals and hospices. Some deal with the aftermath of living, like the morgue and the crematorium. And then there are still other kinds of architecture which exist solely so that those who keep on living cannot ever forget: the architecture of memory. Memorials and mausoleums – memories writ large, in stone. Let’s start there, right at the beginning.

Some of humankind’s earliest funerary architecture is also the biggest. Sneferu. Khafre. Khufu. The pyramids at Giza are immense, older almost than civilisation itself. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, a select few rulers of Egypt were buried in these immense stone assemblages, built on a scale that fully boggles the mind. As a resting place, it is certainly eternal; internally, it is very, very quiet. The only noise besides your own breath is the scrabbling footsteps of another tourist making the ascent up the exceedingly steep, long, narrow entry passage and the whistle of the ‘air conditioning’. The original inhabitants were not meant to be breathing, of course, and nor could they, as their entrails sat in alabaster jars beside the mummy and their brain had been pulled out through their nose via a system of skewers and long skinny spoons. Mummification, despite what Hollywood may tell you, is not for the faint-hearted.

Closer to home, the funerary architecture of current day Aotearoa is a much smaller, calmer, quieter affair, although the embalming is no less brutal. What goes on behind the scenes? How much do you really know (or want to know?) about the buildings that support our journey from flesh back to dust? Shall we delve a little further into the mechanics of what actually happens? 

Traditionally, perhaps, our grandparents would have died at home in the same room where they had lived, with the cause of death listed only as ‘old age’. It is quite likely they got taken to a church for one last service and were then buried six feet underground to spend eternity in the church graveyard below a hefty granite headstone. In some cases, if you were really rich, you could have your own mausoleum: a very small building, made to house the ‘family tombs’. The greatest mausoleum of all, named after King Mausolus of Persia, was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, and therefore, quite understandably, was probably rather magnificent. In the Karori Cemetery there are few mausolea, but there is a splendid example of a family tomb belonging, fittingly, to Mr Biggs and his family. A domed roof, supplanted by a cross, two inset panels of white marble and a rusty steel door seal off the very private space within. The architecture of mausolea is a study of sombre beauty and remembrance via the smallest of buildings – a miniature structure carved in stone for permanence.Over a hundred years old and still looking solid and suitably sombre, inside this little temple sit the remains of many Biggs: gone, but not forgotten. But we’re a little short on mausolea in New Zealand these days. Land is expensive and building even this very tiny house of memory is severely unaffordable. The mausoleum is a bygone concept, now reserved for the ultra-rich.

Along with mausolea, we are leaving behind many other aspects of the more traditional European attitudes towards cemeteries and death. For instance, modern cemeteries no longer have a lychgate, although the Karori Cemetery does. It’s the covered archway going into a cemetery, with seating either side, traditionally where the mourners could wait out of the rain and guard against body snatchers. Hopefully, there’s not much need for that any more. We’re also moving away from funeral services being held inside a church – indeed, we’re abandoning the church in greater and greater numbers. 

Karori crematorium chapel.

Māori attitudes towards death are very different from those of Pākehā. Ancestors are hugely important in Māori life and are immortalised in buildings by the carvings and building efforts of descendants – there is a direct translation of the dead body into the communal architecture itself. Whare whakairo, the carved meeting house, have the tāhuhu (central ridgebeam) as the backbone, the wide heke (carved or painted rafters) as representing the ribs of the ancestor, and the outspread maihi (bargeboards) over the roro (verandah) as being the welcoming arms and fingers of the ancestor themself. The building will often be spoken of as if it were a still-living ancestor, with carved likenesses of face and body readily identifiable by the tattoos. There is deep mourning of loss at a tangi, but it seems unmistakably more enjoyable to go back to the marae and commune with your ancestors in the form of a building than it is to sit in an empty graveyard and talk to a weathered slab of stone. Polished granite is so permanent, so cold, so unemotional, in comparison to the warmth of the carved tōtara timber of the Māori tradition.

For the most part, however, cessation of life has been, until recently, associated with placing the remains of the body into a box and burying that box deep underground. With a casket being lowered into the grave, the process is simple and honest: the body is going down and not coming back up. For most of Christianity, burial six feet under was seen as the only way to go – out of reach of earthworms and tree roots, perhaps in an ornate coffin plushly lined with silk, your body pumped full of embalming fluid, and with a good chance that your lonely, lovely bones would last forever. On a building site near where I worked in London, the lead-lined coffin of a ‘Roman princess’ was unearthed while excavating the site, and when opened, the skeleton was still complete, after around 2000 years. Her linen clothing had rotted away, but the gold thread laced through her toga remained, triumphantly tracing the outline of her body, confirming her regal status. 

You and I will not last nearly so long. 

Since the eighteenth century, when cremation was reinvented (and sanitised), it has become increasingly common to burn our dead instead of bury them. If you ignore several thousand years of open-air funeral pyres from the Vikings, Hindus and others, cremation is comparatively very recent indeed: in 1769 the very first cremation was permitted in London, but the mass adoption of cremation is even newer than that. Alan Crawford highlights just how new:

"Crematoria are very new – More than half of the crematoria in Britain were built between 1950 and 1970. They are part of the proliferation of specialised building types... they are complex in their technology and they are secular. Death, on the other hand, is very old."

Lychgate cemetery.

Whole body burials are now far rarer than cremation, both in New Zealand and in most places around the world. Church farewells are increasingly less common, and family tombs and mausolea are hardly heard of. We are now more likely to spend our last days in a hospice and then, after a fierce bout of toe-curdling burning in a stainless-steel furnace, spend eternity in a jar on a granddaughter’s mantelpiece, with the only sign of remembrance being a brass engraved plaque stuck somewhere on a wall in a bland municipal cemetery.

Why did we change? And what did we change to? Let’s look closer.

In comparison with burial, the ritual nature of a cremation is a whole lot more complex. Instead of a gentle lowering and covering with dirt, an elaborate and frankly bizarre ritual has arisen for cremation. To the sound of ghostly music, through speakers hidden somewhere in the room, the casket moves off the catafalque (the temporary stand which holds the coffin) and nonchalantly rolls on, seemingly of its own accord, towards a small opening covered discretely by a curtain. As the slowly moving casket creeps towards its final denouement, the curtains miraculously part, the casket slides through and the curtain is firmly drawn on that scene. At this point, if you are of a squeamish persuasion, I advise you to go off and have a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich, much as you would in real life. Apparently, very few people ask to see the other side of the curtain. No one really wants to witness their loved one descending into a fiery pit. The architecture of cremation is a brutal, intensely hot, industrialised process to reduce us back to nothing: dust to dust.

If you’re willing to read on, on the other side of the curtain, metal handles and any contentious items are removed from the coffin, and so too with the body: no jewellery allowed, although your gold teeth stay in place. Pacemakers really are a strict no-no, as they will violently explode if cooked. The incinerator itself (called the cremator), typically a stainless-steel box lined with ceramic fire-bricks, is opened to receive the coffin and its incumbent body. The insulated door is closed and clamped shut, while several jets of gas-propelled flames are automatically ignited in the oven, at well over 1000 degrees Celsius, to reduce your dead body back into its residual atoms. To be bluntly honest, the moisture in your body, along with most of your flesh, evaporates as hot air up the chimney. If you were larger in life, your cooking will take a little longer. The body is incinerated for between ninety minutes and two hours, till all that remains are bones, any missing jewellery, hip implants and presumably the odd coffin handle. No one really wants to receive an urn filled with recognisable bones, so there is one final process still to come. The bones are put in a special industrial-strength blender known as a cremulator, where they are crushed into a semblance of dust: in truth, more like the crunchy remains at the bottom of a muesli packet, but just not as tasty. Too much information? 

For all the required dispatching of dead bodies in New Zealand, as a country we have relatively few crematoria. There are just over fifty in total, 27 comprising fifteen municipal facilities, with the rest being privately run. In Auckland, there are three large council-run facilities: on the North Shore, Manukau and the biggest at Waikumete. In Porirua there is a delightful small facility at Whenua Tapu (architect: Fritz Eisenhoffer,1975), with a spire that curls upwards as does the smoke and the escaping spirit. In Wellington we have New Zealand’s oldest crematorium, opened in 1909 in Karori (architect: John Sydney Swan, a prolific designer of churches). Wellington thankfully escaped an 1888 proposal by the Harbour Board Engineer to cremate dead bodies at the city ‘destructor’, the incinerator at the town dump site near Courtenay Place. That would have been smelly and distasteful, offensive to both the living and the dead. 

Despite what you may think of God, there is no doubt that the supreme being is typically worshipped from within better architecture than the crematorium. But that is not really a fair comparison – a church does not have the same design demands made of it. Hilary Grainger puts the design problem succinctly in her book Death Redesigned:

Crematoria have, from the outset, presented a series of challenges to the architect. They are essentially ambiguous and evasive buildings – their ambiguity born out of a lack of shared expectation of what is required by a crematorium. At once utilitarian and symbolic, religious and secular, crematoria have remained fraught with complexity. Architects are required to provide two very different spaces, the functional and the symbolic, linked by a transitional space . . . through which the coffin passes from the “chapel” or meeting hall, to the cremator. The utilitarian purpose – that of reducing a dead body at high temperature to vapour and ashes has remained unequivocal.3 

There are practical considerations galore. Restrooms are a must, as emotions run high, mascara runs low and everyone runs for the bathroom. A porte-cochere at the front door is vital to shield the hearse and mourners from wind and rain, yet with a high soffit so as not to conflict with the flowers potentially piled onto the hearse. Discrete placement of the chimney is a must. Good car-parking is a standard requirement, as cemeteries and therefore also crematoria, are usually not urban, but suburban or rural.

The functional, pragmatic aspects of today’s sanitised life have taken over much of our attitudes towards death. Our ancestors were far more in tune with the cycles of life and death on the farm or in the farmhouse than we are now. In the days when you had to slaughter your own food for dinner and make sure the ram was tupping the ewe, there was a healthy, hearty connection with the facts of life. Animals died at our hands and appeared cooked on our plates soon after. Now we are one step – or several steps – removed. There are few of us that still hunt and kill our own food, but for the most part it now comes pre-packaged in cheerful, colourful plastic-wrapped packs, and the only hunting needed is for a bargain. Likewise, the hard facts of carrying a friend or relative’s body down the aisle of a church and lowering it into a grave has been superseded by the relatively peaceful disposal of the coffin into a machine hiding behind a curtain. After a brief period of mourning, the return of the ashes in a neat and tidy funerary urn completes the circle of sanitation.

  • To read more of this piece, purchase a copy of Death and Dying in New Zealand here.

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