Now, I realise that cemeteries are not everybody’s idea of a grand day out, but you can tell a lot about the living by how they honour their dead. London has Highgate, Paris has Père Lachaise and Stockholm has Skogskryogården (‘The Woodland Cemetery’), which since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 has become quite a tourist attraction.
I have always enjoyed a good rummage through a cemetery, famous or otherwise. Coming from the south of England, otherwise known as ‘God’s Waiting Room’, my cousins and I spent our childhoods daring each other to jump on the very plentiful graves to see if a bony hand would come out and grab our ankles. Later as a teenager, with very well developed leg muscles I might add, I remember being enthralled by tales of Pre-Raphaelite arsenic-preserved poets, and would make all sorts of detours to see the graves of dead famous dead people.
As an adult, I continue to be captivated by crypts. Even amidst the throes, or should I say, throws, of morning sickness I forced myself to visit Florence’s hilltop cemetery where I managed to perform the less than miraculous resurrection of my ciabatta and latte behind a marble mausoleum. Aah, the circle of life if ever there was.
So, when an art historian friend recommended the Skogskyrogården as an excellent example of Swedish Functionalism, I was doubly fascinated, morbidly and artistically.
Designed in 1920 by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz to serve the growing city of Stockholm, the cemetery is set in a small pine forest containing two discreet chapels. The crematory complex is built sensibly away from the trees, because it really would be most unfortunate if Great Aunt Ylva were to ignite the southern suburbs upon her fiery ascent to the heavens.
According to architectural sources, the design team took their inspiration from the landscape and from universal themes of life and death in their vision of creating a ‘sacred place‘. I particularly like the woodland chapel that features a statue on its roof called The Angel Of Death. Top points for calling a spade a spade.
The actual memorials are arranged a little way back from the paths that run through the cemetery so all you can really see to begin with is the avenue of trees which connect the chapels to the entrance. You then need to go off the various side paths to look at the headstones which, although beautifully maintained, are mainly pretty boring compared my experiences of more florid memorials. Most inscriptions hold only the names, dates of birth and dates of death on what seems to be a standard and limited choice of headstones from the stonemasons‘ yards. Those of us trawling the ready food section of our local Swedish supermarket will relate to how that feels…meatballs or microwave pizza, headstone with sun burst etching or headstone with wheat sheaf etching…..hmm, decisions, decisions.
Even Greta Garbo’s memorial, the only really dead famous dead person from an international perspective, is pretty unremarkable, featuring only her name in signature form.
I was disappointed to be honest. Where were the epitaphs, the little eulogies? No mention of being carried off by the plague, the pox, the drink or a large tiger while big game hunting. No engravings of skeletons resting on pick axes or mouldering, vandalised statues of angels embellished with Colonel Sanders goatees to mark one’s time on this earth.
But it was when I was leaving that I looked back over my shoulder down the simple avenue of trees that I thought, ‘Ah, no, now I understand – it’s the actual path that is the important bit, not the hole in the ground ‘, and a bit of a tingle went down the old spine.
Gunnar Asplund, one of the original architects for cemetery, is buried here, with the simple epitaph, ’His Work Lives’. And it does, it really does.
Skogskyrkogarden (Green Line, Tunnelbanna)
Tel: 08 508 31 659 ( between 9am – 12)
Dead Lovely 9/10