The New York Times today gives us a tour of the newly opened section of Forever Fernwood, a cemetery located just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley, California, where people can get a “natural burial.”
In reading about the first inhabitant, we learn what this actually entails:
He was buried un-embalmed in a biodegradable pine coffin painted with daisies and rainbows, his soul marked by prairie grasses instead of a granite colossus.
Here, where redwood forests and quivering wildflower meadows replace fountains and manicured lawns, graves are not merely graves. They are ecosystems in which 'each person is replanted, becoming a little seed bank,' said Tyler Cassity, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who reopened the long-moldering cemetery last fall.
It's surprising to see so few (none really) prominent landscape architecture firms involved in cemetery design, when academia is practically obsessed with them. Each semester never fails to involve a field trip to a cemetery or two, and no landscape history course can forgo mentioning Mt. Auburn, Woodlawn, or Brion. In fact, what most consider the first masterpiece of landscape architecture, the Temple of Hatshepsut, is a funerary site. Every student does a cemetery project; it's a rite of passage.
Cemeteries, like gardens and parks, are enclosed systems. Despite being deeply ingrained in the local culture and beliefs, contemporary practices nevertheless situate them spatially away from everyday experiences. As such they offer opportunities for experimentation, ideal for new methods and practices that may prove to have broader influence and application. Mt. Auburn Cemetery certainly can attest to this. So if your firm is in a state of stylistic recursion, perhaps you should dable in a cemetery project for a month or two to try and get yourself out of your rut.
Imagine all the fuss and conflicts working in cemetery design would generate: between forms and processes that continue the American experience of burial (detached, fast, and antiseptic) and those that would closely resemble a Varanasi funerary ritual (intensely sensory); between the practical concerns of a multi-billion dollar industry and artistic concerns; and between issues of sustainability and the popular image of cemeteries with perfect green lawns. So by the time you finish, you could find yourself stimulated again, brimming over with creative energy.
And so I await to see more landscape architects position themselves in cemetery design and hear what comes of it.
Nature is dead. Long live Nature.
Forever Fernwood, Part II
Forever Fernwood, Part III