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.”

At the quiet limit of the world

I used the research for this post as the basis for an article commissioned by 1843 Magazine, the sister publication to The Economist. The article ‘Death by Design’ will appear in the June/July 2017 edition of 1843. 

ospedale degli innocentiDennis Barlow, anti-hero of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 black comedy The Loved One, was as fascinated as he was appalled by the chintzy glamour of the Whispering Glades funeral home. ‘Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement,’ his briskly robotic mortuary hostess explained, ‘but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment.’ The novel describes a bleakly competent approach to the end of a life; a subject that used to be much more visible to the living when we died at home and were laid out in the rooms and visited by the people we had loved in life. Most people, at least in the Western world, now die in hospitals: drab corridors, harsh lights and a cacophony of noise. As populations grow and end of life prognoses are extended, is a blandly efficient and industrialised process the best we can hope for in death?

No, says Alison Killing, a Rotterdam-based architect and TED-lecturer on the subject. Specialising in urbanism and the use of public spaces, Ms Killing contrasts the grim functionality of modern hospitals with the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Hospital of the Innocents, in Florence, Italy; a 500-year-old testament to open spaces, light and beauty (pictured above). “Death has become institutionalised,” she says. “Hospitals have so many uses it is hard to design in anything other than a coldly functional way.” Ms Killing supports the use of smaller institutions for palliative care that do not need to meet all the demands of hospitals and can create a more intimate atmosphere.

Maggie’s, a UK-based cancer charity, aims to offer such comfort. “If you’ve got cancer, you know it,” says Laura Lee, the CEO, “you don’t need huge signs saying ‘Cancer Treatment Centre’”. Architecture and design can help alleviate the feelings of isolation, vulnerability and hopelessness that follow a diagnosis, she feels. Signage creates an institutional feel, a sense of the professional bestowing expertise on a grateful, subservient patient. Instead, the architecture of Maggie’s Centres’ allows people to process themselves; a roving staff member acts in lieu of a reception desk. The library and communal kitchen allow newcomers to feel helpful to others within moments of arrival and the human connections reduce anxiety levels; visitors feel valued and in control. Patients are empowered by the architecture and the psychological nature of the relationship with the staff is more equal, right to life’s end.

The architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, intended the 370-square-metre West London Maggie’s Centre to represent a heart, wrapped in four protective walls under a floating roof; a haven from the dense urban location. But “it’s not about creating a citadel,” Ms Lee says. Or of ignoring reality; dedicated areas known as ‘pause spaces’ located near the entrance provide room for newcomers to process emotion, particularly useful after a late diagnosis. Similar concepts shaped their Tokyo centre, designed by Tsutomu Abe. Visitors talking at the communal tables about their cancer benefit from knowing they are not alone, observes Masako Akiyama, head of the centre and a specialist in end of life care. “They breathe a sigh of relief,” he says, “when they step into the centre for the first time.”

The first British crematorium opened in the late 1870s to huge controversy. Public health bodies had lobbied for them as graveyards overflowed and corpses, laid too shallow, reappeared with gruesome regularity. The furnaces were first tested on horses, to convince a sceptical public. In 2015 more Americans chose cremation over burial for the first time and 75% of Britons choose this option today. Across the Western world religious observance has declined and more transient populations generally eschew permanent burial locations.

Louise Winter is a graduate of the London College of Fashion. Her company, Poetic Endings, a bespoke funeral service, focuses on what she calls the ‘software’ of the day – how it feels to the family – rather than the ‘hardware’ of objects such as coffins. She is concerned that big funeral companies’ act more in their shareholders’ interests, to the detriment of choice.

Known as the Mary Poppins of death, having run a café in the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, she delights it is still legal in Britain to bury people in their back gardens – albeit at a certain depth (dependent on water table) and stated on the property deeds. “It can affect house prices,” she warns.

She has arranged services at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, among 42-hectares of lakes and meadows, and the Peckham Asylum, a “beautiful, tragic and decaying” 19th Century chapel in south London, unrestored since it was bombed in the Blitz. The space feels sacred and ceremonial and seemingly acknowledges it is witness to a milestone in a person’s life. “It’s where I want my service to be,” she adds.

Specialists in green burials note how methods such as chemical embalming and the use of natural gas for cremations are increasingly shunned. Yuli Sømme trained as a weaver in her native Norway and now makes eco-friendly coffins from wool and hazel wood, locally sourced near her Dartmoor home. Rosie Grant of Natural Endings has seen an increase in demand for her environmentally friendly wool and banana leaf coffins. “People are better informed,” she says, “they want softer, less funeral-ly looking things”. Some clients of Amy Cunningham, owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in New York, prefer objects able to “surrender fully to mother nature, rather than working against her,” particularly the more observant traditions of the Jewish faith (she has trained in the Tahara ritual). Willow coffins particularly appeal to women. “They say, ‘oh my god, that’s me!’ as if they’re looking at a dress in Saks on Fifth Avenue,” she exclaims.


Beneath a smudged sky of watercolour greys in Cambridgeshire, southern England, Toby Angel walks down a muddy autumnal track, Nash, his faithful Labrador, at his ankle. Mr Angel likes the short, meandering path from the car park to Willow Row, the first round barrow to be built in Britain for 3,500 years, slowly emerging from the surrounding willow, ash and oak trees (pictured above and below). Like many visitors, he appreciates the physical exertion that, however slight, shakes off the yoke of modern comforts. Humanity has long regarded the circle as a fundamental and venerable shape: a newborn infant focuses almost immediately on the mother’s breast and iris; the ancient Greeks saw in circles the divine symmetry of nature. Neolithic burial chambers were community focal points. Human ashes have been found alongside evidence of feasting and animal bones; a favoured companion perhaps, an earlier Nash?


Mr Angel set up his company, Sacred Stones, after he had been disappointed by the crematorium experience following his aunt’s death. “Nasty blue carpet, Luther Vandross and twenty minutes later we were out,” he remembers. “Families relinquish control of death to the commercial devil that is a box-ticking and prescribed process”.


A six-foot, roughly diamond-shaped, sentinel stone welcomes visitors, standing at a gap in the trees. The female stone (all such stones are sexed, with obvious phallic shapes denoting masculinity) breaks the sight line and introduces the softly domed barrow behind. Two muddy shoulders, slowly grassing over, reach forward almost to the stone and describe a small oval entranceway.


Stepping inside the transformation is immediate. A few paces and the world outside is another place. Sound reduces to a low, comforting hum as the wind channels through the barrow. Voices do not carry and are instead softened by the floor and stone walls varying in hue from grey to blue depending how deep in the mine they had lain (the higher the pressure, the more a stone exhibits a blue colour). The 11-metre wide structure consists of an inner chamber of 59 large ‘family’ niches surrounded by an outer circle of 349 smaller spaces. Both the inner and outer sections have corbelled roofs five meters high. The stones are supported by their collaborative weight, with a modest use of lime mortar throughout. York stone benches lining the outer circle and inner chamber offer a place for contemplation, laughter, grieving; whatever the family want, and whatever offers them a “simple, easy and uncluttered death”. Prehistoric barrows harnessed the excitement and energy of a communal human gathering as our forebears celebrated where we came from, as well as where we were going. The ceremony, as the central unifying event, connected the living to the dead. It still can.