5 November 2012
From Laura Riding’s poem, ‘Death as Death’:
Like nothing – a similarity
Without resemblance. The prophetic eye,
Closing upon difficulty,
Opens upon comparison,
Halving the actuality
As gift too plain, for which
Gratitude has no language,
Foresight no vision.
Contemporary cemeteries have adopted various useful applications (e.g. environmental habitats, educational centres etc. ), but they also remain highly complex and ambiguous spatio-temporal enclosures. Worpole, in his study of cemetery landscapes, wonders whether we have the ‘vocabulary for describing what these unsettling landscapes mean culturally’. Are they religious or secular, places of despair or places of hope and reconciliation? Does the reminder of mortality help to moderate the fear of death or highlight it? (Worpole, 2003: 56).
In an original social anthropological study, Francis et al (2005) trace contemporary burial culture across six active municipal cemeteries in Greater London. Interestingly, the study attempts to articulate these seeming paradoxes of the cemetery with various oblique references to heterotopia. Here the space is presented as extraordinary, a ‘world set apart’ from the everyday, ‘another world’:
Both cemeteries and gardens are bounded places set apart from the rigid regularity of daily schedules and calendars; they are timeless spaces of generational and accumulated time (6)
The study presents the cemetery as being both exceptional and separated from everyday regularities and at the same time a domestic, or at least ordinary, space. The study concludes that the cemetery is fundamentally incongruous: ‘they face the visitor with contradictory meanings and existential ambiguities that alternate between clarification and obfuscation through ritual action’ (214-215).
The researchers argue that the cemetery is a totally different space and highlight what I believe is a key feature of heterotopia. The domestication within contemporary English cemeteries represents or reconfigures what is outside, but simultaneously the space remains utterly disruptive. Why? In part, perhaps, because we cannot know death directly, so we set up metaphors to try and come to terms with it in some way, to make death thinkable. But the potential therapeutic value is never settled. The grave is an inherently incongruous spatio-temporal unit. In some ways, modes of domestication underline as much as mask this incongruity.
Francis, D. Kellaher, L. and Neophytou, G. (2005) The Secret Cemetery, Oxford: Berg.
Worpole, K. (2003) Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, London: Reaktion Books.
De Boeck, F. (2008) ‘Dead society in a cemetery city: the transformation of burial rites in Kinshasa in M. Dehaene and L. De Cauter (eds.), Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge.
and more generally:
Maddrell, A. and Sidaway, J. D. (eds.) (2010) Deathscapes: Spaces for Death, Dying, Mourning and Remembrance, Farnham, Hants: Ashgate.