Death by design

This post was published in 1843 Magazine and can be seen in the June/July 2017 edition. 

The Crematorium Hofheide is situated in the middle of a lake in Holsbeek, Belgium. An elongated core of earth-coloured stone wrapped in a layer of rusty steel, it appears to float on the water – although on sunny days, when the sky is reflected by the surface of the lake, it seems to float in the air. In fact the structure sits on top of a partly buried plinth, connecting the world above with the world below. In 2016, it won the Architizer A+ award in the Religious Buildings and Memorials category. This year RCRArquitectes, the Catalan trio who designed it, won the Pritzker prize for a body of work, architecture’s most prestigious gong.

The crematorium at Holsbeek is part of a wave of new design work aimed at reconceiving death. As rates of religious belief continue to decline across the rich world, and fewer people feel that the ceremonies and aesthetics of traditional religious funerals suit them, designers are catering to people who want more choice. Much of this work has focused on death as a part of nature. When Designboom, a magazine, ran a competition called Design for Death in 2013, first prize went to Enzo Pascual and Pierre Rivière for “Emergence”, a biodegradable capsule in which ashes are buried. As it dissolves, the casing enriches the soil around it, helping plants to grow. According to Amy Cunningham, who runs Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in New York, some of her clients prefer to “surrender fully to Mother Nature, rather than working against her”, and choose to be buried in coffins made of wool, banana leaf or woven willow. The latter, she says, appeal particularly to women. “They say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ as if they’re looking at a dress in Saks on Fifth Avenue.”

But while many of these products remain a niche concern, the design of crematoriums is anything but. In 1960 just 3% of America’s dead were cremated; this year cremation will overtake burial in the United States, matching countries like Britain, Sweden and Denmark, where around three-quarters opt for their bodies to be dispatched by fire. Yet the rising popularity of cremation is not matched by that of crematoriums, where grim efficiency tends to trump ceremony: characterless corridors, rows of uncomfortable seats and bad lighting combine with a shortage of space to ensure that seeing off loved ones is depressing rather than uplifting. “You feel like you’re on a conveyor belt,” says Louise Winter, whose company Poetic Endings provides bespoke funeral services in London. She is seeing a rise in the number of people requesting “direct cremation”, where a body is burnt without any ceremony at all, so that families can bypass what Winter describes as “ugly places on the edge of town with bad parking”.

Darkness to light 
MAIN IMAGE Light shining through the façade of the crema­torium at Holsbeek produces changing patterns on the wall. ABOVE A ceremonial room at Crematorium Hofheide.

The move towards better crematoriums is particularly pronounced in Europe – one of the most secular parts of the world. “Crematoriums tend to be too industrial,” says RCR’s Carme Pigem. “But death is a part of life. Once we leave the Earth we are still part of the universe, and architecture can help connect the two.” At Holsbeek they created a gently symbolic play of light and shadow. The thin steel strips encasing the building hang vertically, allowing light to shine onto the walls in a pattern which changes throughout the day and reflects the ripples on the water outside. Inside the sepulchral spaces where ceremonies take place, light pours through wells reaching into the centre of the room from the ceiling, creating a sense of intimacy and privacy. The crematorium is at the heart of a park with an orchard and two cemeteries full of wild flowers.

The crematorium in Rennes designed by Plan 01, a French firm, is constructed as a sequence of circles – a shape which, as well as having resonances with ancient sites like Stonehenge, gives the interior of the building a feeling of openness and air. The exterior, clad in pale wood, is soft and tactile. Inside there are no corridors but a series of interlocking, curved spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows. Both here and at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, by Johan Celsing, the architects have used perforations in the walls to absorb sound and soften the acoustics. They have paid attention, as Celsing puts it, to the “clemency” of the building.

The cremation itself is not the only part of the process that is being reimagined. After her husband died, Diana McGlue kept his ashes on a bookshelf at home for three years. He wasn’t religious and “faceless crematoria” held no appeal. Then she discovered Sacred Stones, a British company founded by Toby Angel. Last year it opened Willow Row in Cambridgeshire, the first round barrow to be built in Britain for 5,500 years; another will open soon in Shropshire, and McGlue will keep her husband’s remains there.

In with the old
ABOVE The niches at Willow Row in Cambridgeshire. BELOW The entrance to the barrow

Angel did not enjoy seeing his aunt off in a crematorium. “Nasty blue carpet, Luther Vandross and 20 minutes later we were out.” He wanted to create a space which, while open to people of all faiths and none, has an atmosphere of sacredness. A six-foot, diamond-shaped sentinel stone welcomes visitors; behind it is the softly domed barrow. Sound is reduced to a low, comforting hum. The 11-metre wide structure, with a stone roof five metres high, consists of an inner chamber of 59 large “family” niches which can take up to five sets of ashes, at a cost of £7,000 ($8,700) for a 99-year lease. This is surrounded by an outer circle of 349 individual ones, available for around £2,000. Families can gather at the barrow for ceremonies lasting as long as they want. York-stone benches lining the outer circle and inner chamber offer a place for contemplation and remembrance.

Prehistoric barrows harnessed the energy of a communal gathering. Places like Willow Row and the crematoriums at Holsbeek and Rennes show how these ideas can be updated. “Architecture can describe the relationship between spirit, sensuality and emotion,” says Pigem. “Through that, we can celebrate life.”

Recruiting for jihad

hussain_imageWhat’s more surprising: that a narcissistic if charismatic recruiter for Islamic State (IS), known to the security authorities, was allowed to operate freely, to the point a young convert was killed in Syria, or that he allowed himself to be filmed by a journalist for years, seemingly untroubled that he was gifting material to his eventual prosecutors?

Based in Norway, the film in question, Recruiting for jihad by producer and director Ulrik Rolfsen (that I had the great privilege of helping out on), has just been released. It made its international debut at the HotDocs documentary festival in Toronto on April 30th and has been well received. For three years Mr Rolfsen and fellow journalist Adel Farooq followed jihadist missionary and Norwegian citizen Ubaydullah Hussain, who was jailed on April 4th for nine years for supporting IS and grooming recruits.

The film shows Mr Hussain arranging for a number of Norwegian men to travel to Syria and Iraq for what he describes as humanitarian work. He consistently denied he was an IS recruiter but clearly delighted in the group’s existence and purpose. “No country, apart from IS, is ruled by the laws of Allah,” he says, “I’m happy that we finally have a country where we can practice Islam and live by the laws of Allah.”

We see him travelling to Denmark to pray over the grave of the 22-year old gunman killed by police in Copenhagen after he shot into a café that was hosting a meeting on free speech. He murdered one person and injured three more. “What do you think about what he did?” a Swedish journalist asks Hussain’s associate at the graveside. “Well what do you think about what is going on in Israel?” comes the reply.

The film is full of such obfuscations and contradictions. But underneath is the steady drumbeat of hatred and division. “It’s very important to have a community where you belong,” he explains at one point, to a potential recruit, “you’ll never feel at home in this country or this society.” Five weeks after being filmed handing out leaflets in Oslo, Norwegian convert Thom Alexander Karlssen was killed in Syria fighting for IS in March 2015. Hussain had bought his ticket out from Oslo.

The film shows that in 2014 Hussain visited Britain and met with Anjem Choudary and a number of associates. Among them was Brunsthom Ziamani (convicted shortly afterwards of planning the beheading of a British soldier), Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah and Mohammed Reza Haque, known as The Giant. Dhar and Haque subsequently went to fight for IS in Syria and have featured in images posted online of prisoner executions (they have both, at various times, been dubbed ‘Jihadi John 2’).


In a bizarre twist, Mr Rolfsen’s home was raided by Norwegian security officials as he filmed Hussain and his material was seized. Benedicte Bjørnland, Head of Police Security Service in Norway, said they had compelling reasons to believe Mr Rolfsen’s material included proof of the intention of an 18-year old we meet as ‘Peter’ to travel to Syria to join IS (as well as other material).

However, as Frithjof Jacobsen, a security commentator countered, “if the police don’t have evidence to imprison this 18-year old without confiscating material from people who make documentaries, then they have a problem”.

After a number of legal challenges the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that Mr Rolfsen did not have to reveal his sources to the authorities. The presiding judge said that Mr Rolfsen’s film was “the essence of investigative journalism [and] addresses a central and urgent problem of society where the general public and authorities need to have knowledge and insight”. He said the protection of sources was “crucial to be able to make this film”.

Mr Rolfsen saw the verdict as having wider importance. “It is very significant,” he said, “it means that we can work to uncover things in society. We have different roles. The police have their role. It’s their job to prosecute and I respect that. Our job is to expose things and enlighten the public.”

The privacy debate is a live one right now, and in the UK the new Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the Snoopers Charter, has been controversial. Mr Rolfsen’s film highlights the fine line police, prosecutors and journalists have to tread in this area: at what point does a journalists responsibility to society overrule that to his subject?

We hear a lot about extremist recruiting these days. For anyone interested in understanding quite what that looks like I commend this film. As for why Hussain never travelled to Syria himself? “I’ve been exempted from carrying out jihad,” he says just before his arrest. “I have a chronic illness and in my state of health I can’t go on long trips.”


‘Peter’ was arrested by Swedish police trying to board a plane in Gothenburg bound for Turkey. He was convicted of trying to join a terrorist organisation and sentenced to two years and ten months.