14 November 2012
To conclude these few posts on deathscapes, I am suggesting that modern cemeteries adapt and mutate, taking on and developing a variety of new educational, environmental and historical functions and yet are perhaps, at the same time, the most ‘highly’ heterotopian sites in contemporary society. Cemeteries incorporate all the ambiguous spatio-temporal features of gardens; they recall the myths of paradise; they manifest an idealised plan; they mark a final a rite of passage; they form a microcosm; they enclose a rupture; they contain multiple meanings; and they are both utterly mundane and extraordinary. Frances et al conclude that:
However public and municipal they may appear, each and every cemetery is the most concentrated repository of mystery and secret that is available to modern, urban, twentieth century people. (2005: 215)
An anecdote: with some amusement, Defert, Foucault’s long-term partner, describes how at the end of Foucault’s lecture on heterotopia, the architect, Robert Auzelle, offered Foucault his history of funerary architecture (Defert, 1997: 276). Auzelle, who appreciated Foucault’s lecture, was an advocate of the cemetery park as an integral part of town planning (Rogan, 1983: 259). He saw the cemetery as an important ‘green space’ and at one time also proposed the creation of a single cemetery for the whole of France, built in an under populated department of the country which would be devoted entirely to the dead (301).
In summary, much of the recent debate about the future of cemeteries (in Britain at least) has surrounded practical concerns about the lack of burial space and the potential for incorporating new functions. But apart from this pragmatic debate, it should not be forgotten that cemeteries offer a certain imaginative intensity. Faubion contrasts heterotopias to the ‘mundane monotony…. of everyday life’ and suggests they are ‘brighter, darker or more complex’ (2008: 32). I do not think this is quite right. They have an ambivalent position that is often part of the mundane and yet they enclose something that is bright, dark and complex.
Defert, D. (1997) ‘Foucault, Space, and the Architects’ in Politics/Poetics: Documenta X – The Book, Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz Verlag, 274-283.
Faubion, J. (2008) ‘Heterotopia: an ecology’ in M. Dehaene and L. De Cauter (eds.), Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge, 31-40.
Francis, D. et al (2005) The Secret Cemetery, Oxford: Berg.