“Death is one of the few, truly universal experiences shared by people of all races, culture and creeds” – Simon Worrall.
Does architecture have a responsibility to death? Do we need to re-think our death and goodbye architecture? Do we design for the dead? Should we design for death and the dying?
Death is universal. It happens to everyone. It does not judge. It does not pick favourites. It does not perform on an even playing field. Death is death. But just because it is a topic undiscussed, a topic forgotten… does that mean it should not have architecture and design that supports it? Architecture may not be able to stop death, but it has the chance to create a dialogue surrounding death.
So yes. Architecture does have a responsibility to death. It has a responsibility to society. Western society does not have a dialogue about death. “Death is the last taboo” (Doorne, 2017). Society has such a disconnect to the act of dying that we prefer euphemisms for the act of death; passed on, resting in peace, departed (Doorne, 2017). Society neglects the realities of death so much that the words dying, and death are shunned for lighter, less harsh words. We simplify someone’s final moments into a single word void of emotion. That person has departed. That person has passed on. That person is resting in peace. Never that person is dead. But death is personal. Death is heartbreaking. Death is emotional. It should not be simplified into one emotionless word. It should be acknowledged and appreciated for what it is. A part of life. A part of society. A part of who we are.
Architecture and design have power and responsibility. The role of the architect is a multifaceted one but “it can be said that the common thread is [the] vocation to adapt to and influence a world which is forever changing” (Doorne,2017). Architecture and design have been used throughout history and the world to influence and highlight ideas, power, and moments in time. Memorials. Museums. Monuments. Community centres. Skyscrapers. These designs were used as a way of storytelling. A way to focus people’s attitudes towards an idea or notion. Architecture and its storytelling do not die, they live on. Architecture can create dialogues and feelings across a multitude of years and people but has only just begun to highlight dialogues about death.
Death architecture. Morgue. Mausoleum. Tomb. Funeral home. Cemetery. Crematoria. Hospital. Hospice. Buildings and spaces that revolve around death and its processes. Spaces that evoke a feeling. Spaces that change ideas. Spaces that help us remember. Different spaces creating a typology and dialogue. These buildings and spaces have been present throughout our history. They were once “used to set an example that would be followed” (Killing, 2014). The past death architecture set trends, and defined values for architecture (Killing, 2014) but now “this strong position seems to have faded away completely” (Killing, 2014), even though the need for design and architecture related to death and dying is greater than ever before. Society is strongly fixated on “everlasting youth and not accepting aging as a process, let alone death” (Robles, 2017). This shift in priority has changed the way architecture and design has grown. The art of expressing death has suffered and rather than design for the dying, we started to design for the living only forgetting that we will all become the dying one day.
“Now, if we want better buildings for dying, then we have to talk about it, but because we find the subject of death uncomfortable, we don’t talk about it, and we don’t question how we as a society approach death. One of the things that surprised me most in my research, though, is how changeable attitudes actually are” – Alison Killing.
Duarte family tomb. Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC). Siesegem Crematorium. Exit Here funeral home. Urban Hospice. COR’s funeral home. Farewell Chapel. Zen Hospice Project. Maggie Centres. Urn for living. Buijsenpennock Architects. Juan Carlos Salas. Nikolaus Hirsch. Michel Müller. Pedro Dias. Andreas Fuhrimann. Gabrielle Hächler. Andrea Dragoni Architects. Johan Celsing. Alison Killing.
People and spaces that create and speak about change. That evoke a sense of feeling. That are contributing to a dialogue about death. These people and spaces are changing our death architecture. They are asking us questions about how we want to die and where we want to die by giving us opportunities and platforms. They are changing the “’unobtrusive’ and ‘bland’, the merely simple, or pleasing” (Burwinkel, 2015) death architecture to one that provokes thought and helps with the death process. They are creating a new normal and correcting our outdated urban context. Over the years there has been a “disassociation of death from the heart of the urban fabric” (Heathcote, 1999). Once cemeteries, funeral homes, churches, and crematoriums sat at the heart of society, now they sit on a “ring road or by-pass, accessible only by car” (Heathcote, 1999). By moving these moments to the outskirts of society we allowed for death and death architecture to be neglected and forgotten. “Death has been torn out of the heart of the city and a significant part of the city has died as a result” (Heathcote, 1999). Death and its architecture became a second-thought, second nature. Rather than something universal.
Yet death still surrounds us. Death comes in the form of the sick and elderly. It comes in the form of new and tragic disease. It is catastrophic and heartbreaking. We cannot ignore death. As much we hide it and move it away, it will always be there. It is not in our nature as human beings to ignore someone else’s pain or suffering. We feel a “strong sense of empathy and compassion” (Burwinkel, 2015) towards our fellow man in their times of tragedy. We understand “each other and connect over these most basic elements of our humanity” (Burwinkel, 2015). We grieve with them. We feel with them. But society can do more. Death architecture can do more. Spaces that “enable [us] to understand and quantify [our] loss through ritual, storytelling, remembering, and gathering are very important to this process” (Burwinkel, 2015). But where are these buildings? Spaces can heal. Architecture can heal. It is just a matter of giving it a chance and inviting it to participate.
Architecture “takes on meaning outside of functionality [by focusing] human awareness” (Burwinkel, 2015). Buildings can focus our awareness on a topic, place, person, moment. We have seen it through examples. Siesegem Crematorium unifies the links of death: the hidden and the shown; by embracing the burning process of a loved one. Exit Here funeral home allows death to be celebrated in a personal way, it allows death to go from dark, depressing and drab to bright, happy, and celebratory. VCCC is a hospital that evokes hope and changes perspectives. Urban Hospice uses co-creation to show how death can be embraced in our society. These designs do more than function. They question our ideals on death and what death should and can be. They are examples that push boundaries. We find ourselves asking why does it have to be hidden? Why does it have to be separate? Why can’t it be unified? Why can’t it be a celebrated? Why can’t we die in a familiar place? Why can’t death be as personal as life?
“The act of dying should no longer be seen as a purely medical experience, for it is one that is fundamentally personal, meaningful and ritualistic above all else” – Chelsea Doorne
Death is personal to me. Death is a part of me. It changed the way I viewed the world. It hurt. It was scaring and painful. It was soul crushing. It changed everything. It changed my world. It changed my perspective. The act of death changed me. Not the architecture. The architecture did not help my process. It did not help me cope. It made it harder for me. It made it worse. The architecture was cold, dark, sterile, dull, quiet, depressing, impersonal and I would rather it be forgotten. It was not designed for a good death. It was following the norm.
The hospital in Bangkok where my father died was just that. A hospital. It was not a beacon of hope, or a place of possibilities. It was a building to hold medical equipment and look after the sick. The funeral home in Perth that helped us organise his funeral was quiet, impersonal, dull. It did not allow for personality. It did not allow for creativity. It gave us a Chapel, some flowers, a casket and biscuits and tea. It was no celebration. It was nothing like my father. It was the same as every other funeral. My father’s death was not a good death. He died suddenly in a hospital bed tied up to machines with nothing personal or familiar around him. It was not how I wanted it to happen. It is not how I want death to ever happen.
Because death is personal and should be personal. Death needs not only people but places. It needs design and thought. Architecture to help. Architecture to ease. Architecture to heal. Maybe if that hospital was brighter, lighter, warmer. Maybe if that funeral home had offered something other than a typical Chapel and casket. Maybe if there was a place, a building, a space that helped me grieve and process. Maybe. Maybe then his death would not have been so bad. Maybe then it would have been a good death.
Architecture has power and that power needs to be used so that the next time someone dies, it is a good death. Not a bad one.
“How we relate to death culturally, is reflected in the design of our cemeteries and crematoria. Death has been pushed behind the scenes for the last decades, but it appears times are changing” – David Rademacher.
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