11 May, 2009

Dead cool

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The high-concept Seeyou gravestone met an enthusiastic reception at this year’s Milan Design Fair. But can it revive Britain’s cemeteries, asks Helen Brown

In its constant quest for the freshest, sexiest, most age-defying products, the design world takes little time out to contemplate mortality. But having queued for a playful bounce on the show’s hippest chair, visitors to this year’s Milan Design Fair were brought up short. Sombre crowds gathered respectfully around the Seeyou gravestone, designed by Akos Maurer Klimes and Peter Kucsera, both 29, for Hungarian concrete company Ivanka. The quiet congregation smoothed their hands over its surface and pondered the indented cross shape on top, which allows the man-made monument to interact with the natural environment by filling up with rainwater, leaves or petals, depending on the season.

Design journals singled out the tombstone for special praise in their Milan coverage. But the reaction was less enthusiastic from those who study and manage British cemeteries. Dr Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Research Group says that “modern designers don’t generally understand the cemetery world. For example, local authorities have a big problem at the moment disposing of memorials when graves have to be reused. They don’t want big piles of rock that are difficult and costly to remove. And this looks like a very cumbersome object, especially for a standard modern plot.”

She adds: “I can see that it might look good in a solitary rural setting, but in a crowded cemetery? All those pretty leaves and petals will go mouldy. Other cemetery visitors will probably end up using it as a bench.”

Debate over what constitutes appropriate design for cemeteries dates back to Victorian times. Before the mid-19th century, people were buried in churchyards, and those who could afford a headstone would most likely have one carved by a local stonemason. But the new urban cemeteries were professionally landscaped, serving a dual function as public parks for the living and opportunities for the wealthier dead to express their individuality. The crumbling gothic monuments we admire at Highgate and Kensal Green are essentially stately homes for skeletons. The majority of people aren’t represented.

But as we moved out of the Victorian era, through two world wars with their uniform war graves, death became more of a democracy. Civilians followed the trend towards similar, simple headstones in stoical granite. Today we seem to be moving in two diverging directions again, with an increasing number of us choosing the relative invisibility of cremation or natural burial beneath the trees, while others prefer a monument. Just as funeral services feature pop songs that have particular significance to the deceased, so headstones are more likely to speak of those buried beneath.

UK’s leading provider of funeral services, the Co-operative, has found that although black granite is still the most popular choice, requests for brighter pink and green variations are on the increase. Ken Howe of East Lancashire’s Stone Essentials, who has been a stonemason for 30 years, says he has recently made a headstone in the shape of Bart Simpson. He has carved a magpie for the grave of a Newcastle United fan and a Transit van for that of a traveller.

However, traditional stonemasonry skills have been dying out over the last 20 years, since cheaper granite began being imported from India and China. “It comes ready-carved,” he says, “so funeral directors, who now operate as one-stop-shops, can order them up and have the inscription lasered on when they arrive. So we’re even losing the hand-lettering skills.” But when it comes to designer-led advances, Howe admits there haven’t been many. “There was some fuss about using Corian, that plastic stuff they use for kitchen worktops, a couple of years ago, but I don’t think it caught on. Other countries have embraced modern design, but we Brits seem to be a bit more traditional.”

An October 2007 report by the Commission for Built Architecture and the Environment (Cabe) berated local authorities for their lack of progressive cemetery design, pointing out that in mainland Europe, cemetery commissions have been undertaken by architects including David Chipperfield and the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, whose late-1980s Igualada cemetery dramatically fuses modern concrete embankments into the hills of Barcelona. There have been no equivalents in England since the era of Edwin Lutyens, whose beautifully landscaped designs set the standard for British war graves.

The Cabe report also suggested that our cemeteries were failing to function as public parks: “Many cemeteries are neglected, with very little to attract anyone apart from those visiting specific burial plots. Due to this lack of design, planning and ambition, the potential health and environmental benefits of cemeteries are not being realised.”

The few designers who have looked into the problem are still struggling to see their ideas realised. In 2003 Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel launched their Capsula Mundi at Milan. Their biodegradable, egg-shaped coffin is designed to be planted with a tree above so that the decomposing body fertilises the plant. A graveyard full of these would become a woodland, combining the dual function of individual memorial and public park. But the Capsula Mundi isn’t on sale yet, and looks unlikely to go into production any time soon. Neither is the cremation-oriented coffin Soul Ash Solace, designed in 2004 by Maxime Szyf, who noticed that most coffins are not made of easy-burn materials and designed an elegant, budget-friendly version in cardboard, papier-mache and wood.

Ivanka’s Seeyou gravestone is on the market for £2,700 – not such a designer price when you consider that the average spend at the Co-operative ranges from about £1,200 for a traditional grass plot with a headstone or vase to £3,000 for a grave with a kerbed area covered in chippings or grass. Stonemasons like Stone Essentials charge up to £20,000 for a bespoke memorial.

Katalin Ivanka, the company’s founder, says the headstone is produced without waste or harmful emissions. It is also relatively light as it is composed of a 3-4cm shell, so cemetery managers shouldn’t have too much trouble removing them. “It is simple, contemporary and enduring,” she says. “As far back as Neanderthal times people have needed a ritual place to mourn. A stone, something to touch. We are continuing that human tradition.”

Although many would argue that humankind should stop constructing and consuming after death, Dr Rugg says cemeteries are one of the few urban spaces “where an individual can wander freely, and alone, to think in peace”.

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