architecture / essay / history

Architecture of Death

There are 8 billion people living today, but there have been 107 billion people that are dead. From the earliest of time, people have built structures in association with the death of relatives, important figures, kings, queens, emperors, rulers, and even laid out cities for the dead. To learn about how architecture of death opens another window into different civilisations, cultures & societies of the past. More importantly, are these funerary customs still relevant to today society and what might the future holds? We are all dying.

1. Prehistoric time:

Figure 1-2: Stonehenge – from above / in plan (Wikipedia)

Figure 3-4: Newgrange – from above / plan & section (Wikipedia)

When tools were scarce and construction methods were limited, people often resorted to natural material to construct burial site, of which stone was the more popular choice, not only for its abundance but also for its strength, durability and symbolic quality. Structures made of large stones are called megalith, the most famous among which is undoubtedly Stonehenge. Dating between 3000BC – 2000BC, Stonehenge consists of a ring of stone pillars as high as 9m, circumferencing by ditches and earthworks. The circular layout, which opens up to the sky, symbolises the link between heaven and earth, life and the afterlife. This relationship will be repeated consistently throughout history. Other significant examples of megalith structure include Newgrange built around 3200BC in the area that is Ireland today. Unlike Stonehenge, the complex has enclosed chambers which can be accessed via a stone passageway. The orientation was deliberately placed so that, once a year at the winter solstice, the sunrise will shine along the passageway and lighten the internal chambers. Such finding not only signifies the importance of orientation in death-related structure, but also leads theorists to believe that ancient civilisations follow a solar-centric system of faith.

Figure 5-7 (left to right): Dolmen in Ganghwado, South Korea / County Clare, Ireland / Marayur, India (Wikipedia)

Another subset of megalith burial structure is called dolmen, with the earliest known structure to be built in Western Europe 7000 years ago. Dolmen has a very particular appearance, characterised by two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal capstone. The majority of dolmen (approx 35000) were sited in Korean peninsula, while others can be seen throughout Europe, Africa, Russian, India…

2. Ancient Egypt:

Among the 7 wonders of the Ancient World, two were built for funerary purposes. Ancient civilisations such as Egypt, Greece and Rome are known to devote extraordinary time and effort for death-related customs and arts. It is not only because construction knowledge were much more advance; but also due to monarchs, kings and queens having god-like statuses during their reigns, hence required treatments of similar seriousness when they died and ascended to the realm of gods. The afterlife was a focal point in the Egyptian society, which was reflected in the layout of the city and in the architecture of their tombs. The River Nile separates the East bank for the living, and the West bank where the sun sets as Necropolis, meaning “the city of the dead”. Crossing the river therefore becomes a symbolic journey from one life to the life after. It is perhaps useful to briefly look at the polytheistic religious system during Ancient Egypt time. Egyptian society worshipped many deities who were believed to control elements of nature. The pharaohs acted as the intermediary between people and gods and was considered as the son of Ra when alive and, once dead,  as Osiris, ruler of the underworld. The beliefs in many gods and the afterlife dictate many rituals and construction of temples.

Figure 8-9: Mastaba – early Egyptian tomb / The first pyramid built for Pharaoh Djoser

The original Egyptian burial structure was the mastaba, meaning “house for eternity” – a mud brick rectangular building with outward sloping sides and flat-roof, believed to be the primeval earth on which the Sun God Ra was born. The small chapel above ground used for offerings to the spirit of the deceased, leading downward to the burial chamber beneath. Early mastabas were built of brick, yet later developments saw the use of stone mastabas and eventually its transformation into pyramid. The first pyramid was the Djoser Pyramid, designed by the architect Imhotep for pharaoh Djoser in 2600BC. Its stepped pyramid shape resembles a stacking of multiple mastabas upon each other.

Figure 10-12 (left to right): Pyramid of Khufu – the largest pyramid ever constructed / Digital reconstruction of the Pyramid interior / Khufu’s own sarcophagus (Wikipedia)

At the apex of Egyptian civilisation was the Pyramid of Khufu in 2580BC, the only one left of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Worlds. Constructing over 20 years, the structure pitches at 146 metres, the tallest man made structure for nearly 4000 years. Limestone required to build the structure was extracted from nearby quarries and transferred by the Nile River to the site. Polished stone was used for surfacing, which gave the structure a glistening effect, like rays of light from the sky. The interior of the pyramid was sealed after the ceremony took place to ensure no intruders and allow a safe journey for the deceased pharaohs to the afterlife. In subsequent centuries, smaller structures were constructed called “tekhenu”; which was developed into the obelisk during Ancient Greek and Roman Empire. The name “obelisk” was in fact Greek, first described by Herodotus, a Greek historian known to be “the father of history”. The earliest of its kind is the Obelisk of Senusret I, constructed around 1950BC which are still standing today. Modern time reincarnations include Washington Monument built to commemorate George Washington.

Figure 13-14: Obelisk of Pharaoh Senusret I – the earliest temple obelisk / Washington Monument – the modern obelisk (Wikipedia)

During the New Kingdom era around 1450BC, another great mortuary temple, the Hatshepsut complex, was constructed. What remarkable about the temple is that it was built by Queen Hatshepsut, not only one of Egyptian most successful pharaohs but also the world’s first great woman. The main building, Djeser-Djeseru (The Sublime of Sublimes), consists of 2 ramps, one vertical and the other horizontal, linking 3 colonnaded terraces, which was carved into a cliff face. The location of the temple in itself has signifiant symbolic meanings, not only situating in a sacred valley dedicated to Egyptian goddess Mut, but also aligning with the temple of Amun of Karnak, king of the gods and the wind. What interesting is that Djeser-Djeseru precedes the Parthenon by 1000 years yet its colonnaded structure bears close resemblance to the classical architecture. It also signifies a shift in Egyptian architecture from megalithic enclosed structure of the pyramids to a more open temple design, purposely built for active worshipping.

Figure 14-15: Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple

3. Ancient Greek:

Moving forward in time to around 1450BC, the city of Mycenae (ancient Greek) developed a different approach to burial of the dead. If in ancient Egypt, there is a clear demarcation between the living and the dead, Mycenaeans often buried the relatives in nearby locations, either building “tholos” structure or adopting Egyptian “sarcophagus” as a way of disposing the dead. Tholos (meaning “domed tomb” in Greek) is a Late Bronze development, with Treasury of Atreus being the most famous example. Built around 1250BC, the tomb’s features are typical of a “tholos”, consisting an entrance passageway (dromos) which leads into a circular beehive dome chamber, usually situating under a large earth mound. Mycenae, being a walled citadel, is known for its stone construction, a character that is evident in the use of masonry and corbelled vaults in most of the temples. Alternatively, people can be buried in sarcophagi (meaning “flesh eating”). Originated from the Egyptian “neb-ankh”, a sarcophagus is normally constructed from stone, whose size varies from coffin to a miniature house. The Mycenae believed the structure has the ability to consume the human flesh, leaving only the bone behind.

Figure 16-18: Treasury of Atreus (Wikipedia)

4. Lycia – Asia Minor:

Lycia has one of the most fascinating funerary culture. Lycians believed that a mythical winged creature would carry the deceased into the afterlife; therefore high level tombs were constructed by carving into rock cliffs. These structures were often integrated into cities, their design resembling Lycian house facades with relatives being buried together, signifying a strong belief in life after death. Bas reliefs and engraves on these tombs are adorned with both Greek an Persian elements as well as Lycian. Sarcophagus was also used in Lycia, although their huge sizes set them apart from earlier examples in Egypt or Greece. Normal feature consists of a base, a grave-chamber, and a pointed lid. Mortuary tombs s, echoing Lycia’s ties with the East and setting them apart from Hellenistic tradition.

Figure 19-21 (left to right): Lycian rock tomb in Dalyan, Pinara and “Tomb of Amyntas in Telmessos

Figure 22-23: Lycian sarcophagi in Simena, Turkey (Wikipedia) / “The tomb of Payava” of a Lycian aristocrat

The most famous mortuary structure that comes out of the region is undoubtedly the tomb of Mausolus in Halicarnassus, modern-day Bodrum, Turkey. The temple is one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one to be built by a woman. Artemisia, sister and also the wife of Mausolus – the ruler of Halicarnassus, constructed the complex around 350 BC as a tribute to her brother/husband. The name Mausolus is the origin to all mausoleums that comes after it. Its design comprised many of Greek, Egyptian and Lycian elements, including stepped pyramidal shape, colonnaded façade, an enlarge sarcophagus, internal beehive chamber, and its top adorned with a horse-pulling chariot statues with images of Mausolus and Artemisia. The Temple stood for 17 centuries until earthquakes & the Crusaders in the 16th century destroyed most of the structure.

Figure 24-26 (left to right): 2 of many reconstruction of the temple / the remaining of Halicarnassus temple (Google)

5. Ancient Rome:

Ancient Rome favoured cremation, a funerary practice that suited their rapidly increase population during the first 2 centuries AD. The deceased’s body was washed and a coin was placed in the mouth – a symbolic payment to Charon who ferried across the rivers of the underworld. After cremation, the ashes of the deceased were stored in cinerary urns. Later on during Augustus reign when land are more costly to obtain, urns were stored collectively in columbarium (meaning dovecote), a below ground chamber rectangular in form with grids of niches in the wall for urns storage. By looking at the location of the urns, one can say a lot about the decease’s social status. The lower the niches, the easier they are to access, the more expensive they were. Places under stair were the least desirable of all. Family often had relatives buried in the same columbarium close to each other, often decorated with pillars at the sides, resembling the front of a temple, which is called aediculae. Inhumation slowly took over cremation practice in the 2nd-4th centuries, including the use of sarcophagus, tholos and aedicula for more prominent figures. Dead bodies were considered as contaminated and hence were forbidden within the city walls. Important individuals would line up their burial places along the roads leading to the cities (so-called “Street of Tombs“), with hopes that their names would be kept alive and remembered.

Figure 27-29 (left to right): Columbarium / Vigna Codini’s Columbarium / Street of Tombs in Pompeii (Wikipedia)

Emperors and aristocrats in Ancient Rome resorted to more elaborate form for their own deaths. Wealthy families usually constructed large mausoleums with multiple chambers for memorial ceremony, dinner of the deceased’s relatives and storage of personal belongings such as portraits etc. Some of the notable mausoleums include The Tomb of the Scipios, Tombs of Via Latina, Tomb of Eurysacres, Tomb of Petra… Emperors also favoured mausoleums for their own funerals, although at a much grander scale; two of the most famous are of Emperor Augustus and Hadrian. Both structures share similar design languages, being huge man-made earth-mound complex, circular in form, and topped with statues of the emperors on top. The Mausoleum of Hadrian is later used as the base for a fortified gateway to the Vatican City, now known by the name Castel Sant’Angelo

Figure 30-32 (left to right): Mausoleum of Augustus reconstruction / the structure in real life / Mausoleum of Hadrian, which was built over by Castelo Sant’Angelo (Wikipedia)

Figure 33-35 (left to right): Trajan’s Column / Marcus Aurelius’s Column / Spiral staircase inside column (Wikipedia)

Another Roman invention is the triumphal column. Heavily influenced by Ancient Egypt, Roman emperors adopted and transformed the obelisks design, used for the commemorating of victory in wars, and later on for funerary purposes. The earliest example is the Trajan’ column, built in 113AD after the victory of Emperor Trajan in the Dacian Wars. The freestanding marble column reaches 30m in height, adorned with spiral bas-reliefs on the exterior. An internal spiral staircase provides access to the platform above. Trajan’s column serves as a precedent for many more triumphal columns in Rome.

6. Other part of the world:

Figure 36-37 : reconstruction of Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum / The famous terracotta army 

In other part of the world where Hinduism, Buddhism, animism were predominant religious practices; funerary architectures differ significantly. Ancient Chinese believed that death was a prolongation of life itself. Chinese emperors, were considered as “son of Heaven”, often erected elaborated mausoleum complexes that closely resembled their empire and palaces. They buried servants, objects, wives, foods, drinks, etc. alongside for services in the afterlife. One of the exemplary examples of Chinese tombs is the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, with its famous terracotta army. Built from 246BC to 208BC, the tomb is 76m deep below ground, designed as a replica of the Qin capital Xianyang, featuring inner and outer walls, Imperial Park with bronze cranes, swans and ducks. At the time of Qin’s death, human sacrifice was not commonly practiced, therefore the king ordered to bury 6000 life-sized terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots – an army to protect him in the afterlife (from other dead emperors’ armies perhaps). Excavation still continues today and a museum has been built over the tomb itself.

Figure 38-40 : One of sky burial structure in India / Inside the tower / Tower of Silence plan (Wikipedia)

In parts of Asia, people were also recorded to practice excarnation, the tradition of exposing the dead for natural defleshing. In Tibet, part of China and Mongolia, people who adopts Vajrayana Buddhism believes that once dead, the body is an empty vessel and should be disposed as generously as possible. In addition, the region’s rocky and hard terrain and its limited resources make the practice of sky burial a more favorable choice than cremation or natural burial. Iranian Zoroastrian tradition has similar way of disposing bodies, usually on a particular structure called “Tower of Silence”. The tradition comes from the belief that earth and fire are sacred, hence should be kept away from the dead. The structure dated back to the 9th century, was often seen in cylindrical form, with flat roof and high parapet, upon which bodies are laid in 3 rings: men around the outer ring, women in the middle ring, and children in the innermost ring. The bodies were left exposed to nature for up to one year, before being further disintegrated in lime liquid, filtered through coal and sand and disposed out to the sea.

Figure 41-43: The tau tau on balcony carved into rock / Toraja’s hanging wooden coffins / Australia’s artist impression of hollow log coffin of the Yolngu people (Wikipedia)

In Indonesia, the Toraja people often hangs coffin on a cliff, with the body and other possessions inside. The wealthy are often buried in stone grave carved out of a cliff, and have their effigies (called Tau Tau) looking out over the land. This is accompanied by a series of events and ceremonies that spans weeks, months, or years and are considered to be the most elaborate and expensive events. The hanging coffins survive for years before eventually fall to the ground.

Australian Aboriginal also practices excarnation, believing that they come from the land and should therefore return to nature once dead. Different tribes vary in their disposal of the bodies, some places on platforms or on trees or in caves. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land uses log coffin – tree trunks that are hollowed out by termites and painted by clan members – with the bones placed inside.

Figure 44-46 : Examples of Ghanaian fantasy coffins

Another quite interesting funerary custom is of the Ga people in Ghana and Tongo. In commemoration of the passing away of prominent individuals in society or family, specially crafted coffins (called “abebuu adekai”) are made to reflect their essences, ranging from car, elephant, pencil to sword or boat. They believed in the afterlife and that the ancestors can influence the living, hence creating such elaborated coffins is seen as a way to pay tribute and respect to the deceased.

7. Modern take on death:

Figure 47-48 : Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris – the first garden cemetery & municipal cemetery

As kingdom and empire, kings and queens, rulers and conquerors all collapsed; come with it the downfall of death-related architecture. These were once influential to the development of the discourse, setting the trends, formally, symbolically and theoretically. Today, as our life spans increases, our end-of-life treatment extends and diversifies, what we see is a decaying interest in funerary arts and rituals. In the wake of significant cultural and technological changes and unprecedented population burden both living and dying, it is past time we re-access our approaches to death and their expression in the built environment. One of Venice Biennale’s exhibition this year called “Death in Venice” tries to do just that. Co-curated by Alison Killing and Ania Molenda, the project documents and maps out the evolving landscape of death in modern Britain over the century, “to reflect on the current shape of death and the architecture which offers space for it.” It is quite location-appropriate since Britain during the Industrial Revolution was the departure point for the development of modern day cemetery. The country at the time was under heavy land burden, both for the living and the dead. Concern was raised regarding public health issue and diseases, which brought about 2 changes: a legislation requiring cemeteries to be built outside of cities, and the rise of privatised graveyards besides churchyards. As a result, “garden cemetery” like Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was designed, featuring planned walkways, landscaping and servicing buildings – a prototype for “modern necropolis”. This also marked a converging point of different funerary arts and rituals. Unlike before when different parts of the world has their own, cemetery burial has become the most common practice worldwide until today.

Figure 49-50 (left to right) : Holocaust Memorial in Berlin / Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne

War memorial is also another variety of how death commemoration is formalised in today’s cities. Metaphors and symbols from ancient tombs & mausoleums still inspire and inform how death is represented in modern world. One example is The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia which was based on the Halicarnassus Mausoleum in Turkey. The Shrine is a war memorial for soldiers that died in World War I and especially in the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey. As a result, The Halicarnassus Mausoleum was an influential precedent both for its location reference and its origin as a death memorial. Another example, perhaps the most famous one, is the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenmann in 2004, consisting of 2711 concrete slabs (stelae) spreading over undulating field. Although the architect claims to have used no symbolism, many have stated the resemblance of the slabs to flint-stones in graveyard, or ancient sarcophagi. What can be said by looking at these examples is that contradicting to the advancement of the architecture discourse, how we treat death has stayed basically unchanged.

It is not until 2 decades ago that people researched other alternatives to disposing human remains, which could be accounted to 2 factors : the advancement of technology and the increasing ecological consciousness. Most notably among new methods of disposing bodies are alkaline hydrolysis – a process that uses chemical liquid to break down bodies; and promession – a method developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak which consists of 5 steps: freezing the body, “shattering” the body via vibration, freeze drying, metal separation from body, depositing into soil where aerobic bacteria decomposes the remaining into humus . Both has been recognised for their energy efficiency in producing less carbon dioxide and pollutants than traditional burial practices. A more “elaborated” funerary custom is space burial which will launch your cremated remains into outer space at a cost starting from $1295. The service provided by Celestis will either return to Earth, or settle in other planets such as the Moon, or continue into the universe.

Figure 51-53 (left to right) : Capsula Mundi / Urnabios / Infinity Burial Suit – new sustainable ways to be buried

Another direction undertaken by scientists and artists is to capitulate on the deceased bodies as a byproduct for sustainable purposes. One such speculative project is Capsula Mundi, a project by Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel. The idea is to substitute modern coffin with biodegradable burial pods which are capable of turning a person’s remains into nutrients for trees growing directly up above. Working similarly to the Capsula Mundi project is the Urnabios by Spanish design studio Estudimoline. The package includes a 100% biodegradable urn, made of coconut shell, compacted peat, and cellulose with the top part containing a seed of your choice (such as oak, maple, pine, beech, ash etc.), and the bottom part for the deceased ashes. Urnabios costs $145 each, and 7000 of them have been distributed worldwide. Another sustainable way to be buried is in The Infinity Burial Suit, a brainchild of artist and MIT research fellow Jae Rhim Lee. Dubbed “The Mushroom Death Suit”, the product is an organic cotton suit lined with a crocheted netting containing mushroom spores, which not only quickly break down organic matter, but also clean up environment toxins in soil. One of the oddest byproduct of death that I’ve came across is Lifegem of which slogan reads “an authentic diamond created from the ashes of your loved one as a memory to their unique & wonderful life”. Poetic yes, but weird.

Technology and modernisation have enormously improved our lives, just as much as they have transformed how we deal with death as a society, yet little have been mentioned or discussed about it. We are so preoccupied with living that we often forget our own mortality. The architecture of death is itself dying, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it is time to bring up the discussion, not about how good can a cemetery look, but how the architecture of “good death” should be.


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