“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them”.-George Eliot.

The world, an amalgamation of innumerable species of organisms and twice that many circumstances, driven by the phenomenon of change; has a single underlying truth known as the circle of life. With every life born, another departs hence maintaining the ever perfect balance of existence. This philosophy remains fundamental for the numerous customs and traditions that dwell along. Amidst all a common assumption prevails of life being a celebration and death being grief.

Even the field of architecture revolves around spaces for the living and the functions related. Now the question asked is what about the dead? Importance of spaces dedicated to them? How are structures that the living and the dead attend taken care of? Hence the necessity of funerary architecture comes in the picture.

Different cultures have varying ritualistic and architectural manifestations to the notion of death. For instance, The Parsis(Zoroastrians)Tower of Silence, The Hanging Coffins of the Sagada Culture; are examples of various cultural practices. These manifestations have roots that go back into the earlier days of settlements.

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Pyramid of Khufu ©luxorandaswan.com

The Egyptian Civilisation, known for its pharaohs and pyramids, is considered to be the earliest culture to have dealt with funerary spaces. They believed in the concept of the afterlife and death was a mere transitional phase, and hence the pyramids facilitated the same. The different levels of the pyramid were home to valuable assets such as gems, gold, exotic flowers, oils along with clothes and utensils; essentials required to make the journey comfortable for the departed, which was protected by intermediate traps and narrow passages. According to the early Egyptians, tombs were where one stayed the longest and hence they were more lavish and ornamented than their residences. Eventually, other structures such as obelisks and mastabas developed since the pyramids were restricted to pharaohs and noblemen.

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Tomb of King Tut ©enterprise.press

The ancient Greeks believed that to die without commemoration was worse than death itself. Special cults were assigned to conduct expensive and elaborate funerary rituals. Initially, no built environment was involved; with time by the 6th century BC, aristocrats erected monuments and sculptures with intricate details embodied with assets similar to the Egyptians to celebrate the departed. Tombs were cut out of a rock on earth similar to tumulus(narrow burrow like tombs). Cenotaphs with domestic layouts were built in accordance with the social hierarchy. Mausoleums with domes, columns, and arches with ornamentation came about and hence remain as the structures we see today.

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Kasta Tomb(Tumulus) ©thinkglobalheritage.wordpress.com

The Romans established cities known as Necropolis on the city outskirts dedicated to the dead, which consisted of tombs, burial sites, and columbariums (storage units for urns containing ash). The concept of catacombs or underground monumental burial grounds with several levels of depth to accommodate more number of bodies was introduced but eventually discontinued due to the hygiene issues.

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Columbarium at Villa Doria ©ancientrome.ru

From this period, the significance of a properly planned built environment for the dead and its implications came into light. During the 17-18th century, neo-classicist architect Etienne Louis Boulee proposed an idea of a cenotaph as a poetic homage to renowned scientist Sir Isaac Newton. The building derived its size and proportion from the Pyramids of Giza, with a sphere being the highlight to commemorate Newton’s Memorial. A play of light was induced in the interiors onto the sarcophagus of Newton; an illustration of his ideas of the enlightenment. The structure had the potential to revolutionize the concept of funerary and memorial spaces but remained unbuilt since it was ahead of its time.

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Cenotaph of Issac Newton(Sketch) ©mindeguia.com

Today the notion towards death has evolved drastically, so has its architecture. Though the traditional ideas prevail, more pragmatic and empathetic solutions have also come about. Cemeteries branched into typologies such as garden, urban, monumental; to name a few. Some of the pragmatic approaches such as a vertical cemetery amid a city as a reminder of the death being the ultimate truth(concept by Martin McSherry, Student of Royal Danish School of Architecture, Oslo)conversion of bodies to biomass(Sylvian Constellation), dining with the dead(New Lucky Restaurant, Ahmedabad); to name a few. An empathetic approach can be seen in planned projects such as Ashwini Crematorium by Matharoo Associates(Ahmedabad) and Ruriden Columbarium in Kouko-Ji Temple.

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Ashwini Crematorium ©wanderluxe.com
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Ruriden Columbarium in Koukuo-Ji Temple. ©burningsettlerscabin.com

Funerary Architecture is a realm that is yet to be explored and used to its potential. Being a subject sensitive to society, a certain stigma surrounds it. In conclusion, as time passes by, ideas of society evolve, hence accommodating and thinking about the built environment of such sorts.


Anjana Sasikumar, an aspiring architect and writer; is an aficionado of words and an avid reader. She believes that the experience a person embarks on or the true essence of an environment is best expressed with words.