9 November 2012
How do we explain the spatio-temporal ambiguities of cemeteries? Frances et al touch upon some of the spatio-temporal dimensions: ‘timeless spaces of generational and accumulated time’ (2005: 6). The timeless feature is also reiterated by Worpole who thinks the fascination with the cemetery ‘suggests that it represents a corner of the world that seems inviolable and timeless’ (2003: 25). And yet against such notions of timelessness, we should set multiple spatio-temporal disruptions that are to be found in cemeteries and individual graves or markers. Hallam and Hockey’s study of memorials and ‘memento mori’ explore this theme, suggesting that these objects in fact ‘articulate tensions between stasis and change, preservation and decay; between the recognisable and the radically unfamiliar aspects of the self and other….’ (2001: 51). Concentrating on the processes and spatialisation of memory, they note that these objects play with notions about ‘longevity and transience’ and highlight a complex spatio-relational dynamic:
Just as the spatialising of memory and death allows human mortality to be apprehended and given meaning, so the temporal reach of material spaces transcends the here and now, connecting with future lives and deaths (84)
They underline the point that ‘while such objects stimulate memories that remain motionless, they simultaneously evoke the passage of time’. Cemeteries are full of graves that possess simultaneously a presence and absence, or as they say, rather mauling TS Eliot, ‘past presence and present absence are condensed into the spatially located object’ (85).
In this sense, a cemetery is a space for emplacing the placeless. Tracing various etymologies throws some light on this fundamental ambiguity. Harrison notes that the Greek word for ‘sign’, sema, is also the word for grave. The grave pointed to itself, a sense of ‘here’ that is only manifest in the sign itself: ‘prior to gaining outward reference, its ‘here’ refers to the place of its disappearance. It is the disappearance of death that ‘opens the horizon of reference in the first place’ (2003: 20). In contrast, Worpole makes the point that in German the word for monument, Denkmal, means ‘think-mark’ or object that makes you think. (203: 195). It provokes a notion of absence. Hallam and Hockey also refer to Foucault’s concept of heterotopia directly. In their interpretation, heterotopias are spaces that are assigned a multiplicity of meaning. For them ‘death has the power to create a heterotopia, that is, the layering of meanings at a single material site’ (2001: 84).
Francis, D. et al (2005) The Secret Cemetery, Oxford: Berg.
Hallam, E. and Hockey, J. (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture, Oxford and New York: Berg.
Harrison, R. P. (2003) The Dominion of the Dead, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,
Worpole, K. (2003) Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, London: Reaktion Books.