Place and identity: What can we learn from the dead

ANU E Press
Publication Type:
Journal Article
craft + design enquiry, 2015, (7), pp. 99 - 112
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In his book Last Landscapes (2003), Ken Warpole notes that, for a number of reasons, cemetery architecture is the most conservative aspect of the institutions and practices surrounding death and memorialisation in the West. This is starting to change, with designers and architects responding to the groundswell of sentiment demanding that we moderns modernise our ceremonies and associated institutions. In the following essay, I look at the different demands and opportunities in urban and rural cemetery design, and focus on the multifunctional roles that cemeteries have played in the past and might yet play again. This essay is the meeting place of previous work on paddock architecture in the Australian landscape and a recent project looking at death and the landscape. I am interested in the ways that design might respond to the nexus identified by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk as ‘reactionary religion and progressive technological medicine’ (2013: 421), which can bar the possibility of a dignified death and a dignifying place for the dead among the living. This doesn’t mean a return to the ostentation of Victorian mourning rituals or adopting the ‘death as party’ practices of Ghana or Mexico—which isn’t to say we can’t learn anything from these. Instead, the task seems to be finding a way to give meaning to the values of specific lives and the contexts in which they are embedded, and to provide better support structures (both material, atmospheric and symbolic) for those who gather around the absence created by the departed.
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