Often regarded with caution and unease, burial grounds & funeral sites have mostly been sidelined into the fringes of society. These places are crucial to the proper functioning of any community but their importance has long been overlooked. In urban neighbourhoods, where deaths are recurrent, the need to have practical yet dignified places to dispose of bodies cannot be downplayed. There is more to crematoriums & cemeteries than being shrouded in the shadow of death; there is meaning in designing these spaces to have positive ambiences which could comfort the living. Chiefly, they act as a sanctuary to family/friends of the deceased to have a decent outlet for their grief and be consoled by giving a proper send-off to their loved ones.
The Role of Religion and Culture
Although different cultures may follow different death rituals, few elements run common to all. Most religions seem to align with the idea of an afterlife, be it in the form of a spirit realm, a transitory plane, or any other manifestation of existence after being released from the body. This belief often impels us to follow traditional funeral procedures that will dictate the departed soul’s state of existence after passing. Be it the Hindu tradition of spreading ashes into the river or the Christian practice of placing coins on the eyes, last rites are a symbol of transition. Performing them collectively is considered integral for the deceased individual’s ‘Ātman’ (soul) to attain peace in its next form. Crematoriums/cemeteries are the ritualistic gateways that enable passage from life to that which lies beyond.
Death & The Indian City
As recently as a century ago, in few parts of the world, cemeteries were popular grounds for picnic spots, markets, and fairs as open spaces were limited in dense neighborhoods. Over the years, with the onset of rapid urbanization, these places of cultural, social, and religious importance have shrunk smaller and have fallen prey to negligence. As cemeteries in major cities are encroached by various organizations in the name of development, there is less room to accommodate the volume of burials; the result is either graves being dug on top of each other or packed tightly with hardly any room in between. With burial grounds running out of space, people are looking to alternative methods such as cremations.
The procedure of cremation can be further classified into electrical or manual, the latter involving a funeral pyre. As population rises every year, urban crematoriums are struggling to keep up with the volume of bodies they receive. They operate on slots; families can book an assigned slot during any period of the day or night to cremate the body. Victors are expected to complete the rituals within the allotted time and vacate the premises soon after cremation. This structured format along with current layouts of crematoriums hardly offer the privacy or sanctity that such circumstances call for.
Role of The Architect and What Makes a Good Design
Places of the dead should be places of sanctity for the living. While cemeteries are open grounds and require less thought to build structures, crematoriums need special attention to the inter-relationship between private, semi-private, and public spaces. This is where architects factor in – the design should evolve from a sensitivity towards the psychology of the users. Crematoriums would greatly benefit from the creative use of physical elements that offer privacy to the mourners while maintaining a degree of openness to nature. Exposure to beautiful scenery is directly correlated to upliftment in people’s moods. Proper design of crematoriums & cemeteries requires adequate visual barriers to shield the proceedings from prying spectators and vice-versa. Inward-looking spaces, buffered from the surrounding neighborhood through strategically placed auxiliary buildings or landscape can facilitate a serene and respectful space for grieving families.
Material choice can bear a significant impact on the human mind; natural, exposed finishes such as granite, terracotta or concrete put together in a neutral palette imply a warm atmosphere as opposed to loud and opulent alternatives (bright paints, marble, tiles, etc). When it comes to materials, water resistance, easy-to-clean and less maintenance are desired characteristics as they allow for quick cleansing after extensive rituals. Textures too account for their part in the experience of the space – non-slippery surfaces allow for smooth passage of stretchers and reduce chances of accidents among crowds. While there is no archetype for the shape of built structures in crematoriums/cemeteries, minimal and rudimentary forms of squares, rectangles & circles do not grab attention and keep the focus on the proceedings. Finally, the most important aspect of sacred spaces is natural light; a judicious play of light, especially in prayer areas, be it through skylights or wall openings, imparts a much-needed essence of purity.
Mahaprasthanam cemetery & crematorium (Hyderabad), Ashwini Kumar Crematorium (Surat), and Vaikuntha Mahaprasthanam Crematorium (Hyderabad) are all examples of layouts that follow the structured process of a typical funeral ceremony, which goes as follows:
- Entry of a group of people along with the deceased
- Pre-Cremation Rituals
- Cremation with mourners watching
An effective crematorium design involves large spaces to accommodate groups, sufficient service-related buildings, chimney systems that filter smoke, pathways that allow unobstructed movement, threefold use of landscape as a facilitator, visual buffer & psychological relaxant, and a calming ambiance through the use of light. On the other hand, burial grounds need ample thought towards the layout of pathways and landscaping. The elements most common to a cemetery, i.e, headstones, trees, benches, trees, and in some cases, water bodies can be articulated in a lively way rather than depressional. A person reeling from loss seldom absorbs everything they see, but other senses subconsciously take in the environment. Such should be the aim of places that commemorate the dead; they should nurture healing and positivity in contrast to being feared as places of gloom.
Future of Crematoriums/ Cemeteries
While spatial design can improve the process of grieving, the facts surrounding death are much more grave. Burying & cremating are both harmful to the environment; while burials contaminate soil & groundwater through caskets made of mixed materials, burning bodies releases toxic chemicals into the air. The need for a water body at Hindu ritual sites is another concern for many; traditional practices dictate that ashes be spread & ritual bearers take an ablutionary dip in holy waters. But the challenges of finding a site for a crematorium on the banks of a river, and the water pollution caused by ceremonial ashes are worries with no plausible solution. Additionally, the land that cemeteries occupy is permanently unavailable for development, posing a dilemma for evolving cities.
As people become more aware of the environmental impact caused by conventional methods, alternatives for body disposal are being explored. We can now sign up for organ harvesting, be used as fodder for trees, and purify the Earth by allowing mushrooms to devour us among other imaginative and eco-friendly methods. While the shift may be gradual, one day we may as well become one with the Earth in the truest sense. Death, in any sense, is nothing to be feared of; it is a cause for celebration – of a life well-lived, and one that died honorably.
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