Historically, in the U.S. burial grounds served as public spaces. They were spots for contemplation and reflection as well as recreation and celebration. In fact, the practice of landscape architecture grew out of increasing demand for well-designed cemeteries. Eventually, a myriad of forces pushed cemeteries outside of city centers, into the suburbs. This shift both reflected and contributed to a widespread “denial of death”, which has broad ramifications for the way we relate to our bodies as well as the fragile ecosystem in which we live. Furthermore, burial practices themselves are harmful to the environment. Reintegrating cemeteries into cities could have profound societal impacts. As a range of researchers have observed, awareness of death informs and invigorates life. But increasing urban migration has placed city space at a premium. Cutting edge technologies are needed to absorb cemeteries into the urban core in an ecologically responsible manner without occupying space unnecessarily.
The San Francisco Reservoir, which is decommissioned and has sat empty since the 1940s, presents a unique opportunity to test a new model of urban cemetery for the twenty-first century. The 4-acre site is located in the Russian Hill district in San Francisco. Both San Francisco generally and Russian Hill in particular have a rich history related to urban cemeteries. The city used to have over 25 cemeteries within its city limits. Russian Hill got its name due to an old cemetery where Russian seal hunters had buried their dead. Kids who came to play amongst the overgrown graves first gave the area its name. In the 1940s, due to population growth and land pressure, as well as a changing spiritual relationship with these spaces, graves were dug up and moved out of the city. Now, only two cemeteries and six columbariums remain. Today, it is illegal to cremate or bury anyone in San Francisco proper. The only exception is the San Francisco National Cemetery at The Presidio (federal lands). The columbariums are for the interment of ashes.
In order for urban cemeteries to be successful in the 21st century they will need to equally serve the dead and the living. Urban cemeteries will need to be compact due to spatial constraints in cities. If integrated successfully, they can even contribute usable open space to these dense population centers. These cemeteries should be physically accessible for a range of stakeholders and embrace sustainable environmental practices. Innovative green burial technologies are being actively developed and are ready to become common practice in the near future. These new technologies will make innovative urban cemeteries a viable and desirable alternative once again.
Why do we want cemeteries in the city?
MORTALITY AND MEMORY
In cities such as San Francisco urban cemeteries were removed from the urban core and relocated outside the city. The result was the segregation of mourning and death from daily living and society. Isolating cemeteries from everyday living has impacted our relationship to death--and life--giving us less opportunity to encounter and face our mortality. The practice has also challenged our ability to remember those who came before us. Attitudes towards mortality are changing and talking about death is becoming less taboo. Future urban cemeteries could benefit from and contribute to this changing mindset and materialize a new relationship with death and the living world we inhabit.
Cities worldwide struggle to meet the minimum requirements for open space. Cities also struggle to secure funds to sustain viable open spaces in crowded conditions. Much like in the garden cemetery period, urban cemeteries can meet both of these needs by offering contemplative open space and passive recreation in a place that is financially self-sufficient. Access Urban cemeteries have the potential to be easily accessible for all members of the population, particularly seniors who might have limited mobility or access to vehicular transportation. Cemeteries located at the urban core allow for alternative uses that are easily accessible to different user groups.
What characteristics should an urban cemetery exhibit?
Current burial practices have a large environmental footprint; cremation is not an exception. Cremation releases into the atmosphere highly toxic dioxins and gasses that contribute to acid rain, CO2, mercury and other polluting metals; in addition the practice consumes high volumes of fuel.
NEW BURIAL TECHNOLOGIES
As a reaction to these ecologically unsustainable burial practices, many individuals and organizations are developing alternative, green practices and methods to deal with human remains. The process I am basing my project on is called Promessa®. This is a dignified and environmentally friendly form of burial. This burial process, which is very much like a more sustainable approach to cremation, leaves no traces of pollution or contaminants in the environment. The potential that this technology affords is of an endless burial space regardless of the size of the land.
NO MARKERS AND NATURAL LOOKING PLANTINGS
Experts in this field suggest that naturalized burial places encourage therapeutic moods such as tranquility and reflection and reflect historical continuities in society-nature relations where landscapes have been designed for spiritual uplift, therapy and recuperation. The garden and space themselves become sacred, and there is little objectification of death.
Burial Grounds in the City
Cemeteries once again could become places of dual use--burial grounds and open space. In this way cemeteries could help solve the need to increase open space in crowded cities. Landscape architects can resourcefully bring these uses together, but in order to have places for the dead amongst the living, the physical characteristics, design and layout of the cemetery have to be clearly and tastefully crafted. Of particular importance is the boundary or threshold in order to consecrate the site and offer a sense of protection and intimacy. It is also important to provide spaces specifically for individual and group mourning.
Kyle O'Konis (graphic input), Joshua Rose (narrative input)