What are the elements of design at places of death that provide comfort?


Daylight and earthy tones seem the most important. One could argue we do this to remind ourselves that what is happening to us in crematoria and cemeteries is part of our life. Everything that used to be important: the clothes we wear, the house we live in, the promotion at work, the city we felt so important in disappears. What remains is the sky; a big, blue, endless sky that waves us goodbye as we let out our last breath and roll our eyes up to our skull.

There is something primitive about the means we want to disperse our human remains. As if we feel the need to smell the earth and light a fire. We like it to be dramatic and to be drastic. There is no room to get comfortable with a corpse. Just a big ol’ pyre to dance around. Just a shovel and a man with a dark and heavy coat piling sand on top of grandma. We want to hear the sand hit the casket. We want to feel the heat of the crematory ovens. We want to know that we did it: it is over and done. We can go on with our lives.

After spending many hours in crematoria these past months I have seen nature taking shape before my eyes. Often overlooking a man-made pond, garden, or forest, I have seen seasons change while peering through the big glass windows. Meerbloemhof was the only crematory that did not have those windows throughout its auditorium room. But alas, they had nature in the shape of a projection that tried to give you the illusion you were outside.

I think the big windows are attempting to connect you to nature. Everything that moves outside this crematorium lives in a cycle: it will be born and decay, just as we humans do. We are not alone in this feeling. A cat hides when he feels the end is coming near. And we humans, we gather.

After looking through the windows for so many hours and at so many different places. I started to appreciate that the glass walls also gave me the feeling that I could leave at any minute. Nature was a leap out of the window away. If I could not find the door, one swing with my chair would break the glass so I would be outside again. In the auditorium of a crematory, you are not hidden away in a dark room with no way out. In fact, it is the opposite: outside is everywhere around you. If we wanted to we can still choose to be the cat and not the human.

"Een reiger vliegt hoog van het westen naar het oosten. Door de ramen die van de grond tot het plafond reiken kan ik hem volgen. Als je de zaal binnenkomt kun je achter je, de bomen zien wieken op het cadans van de wind die dag. Ik loop op een licht grijze vloer van natuursteen en in de ruimte staan aan elke zijde, deuren van meters hoog die bij het openslaan je gelijk buiten doen wanen”. Yarden Crematorium

Not every place in the crematoria has big glass windows. There are no escape windows in the room where the ovens are situated. Partly probably because of health reasons and stigma.

We get how the ovens work. We even like to imagine it will take such an oven an hour of work to return the corps to dust (and not the 5 hours and lots of preheating it does take). We want to know the machine works, but that does not mean we would like to see the heavy clouds of black smoke leave the chimneys. We technically do not want to know what a ‘cremation’ entails. Or at least, society tells us we do not want to know.

Some crematoria will not even allow you in the oven space (Westerveld). They make you say goodbye to a casket and call you back a few weeks later to collect a bag of fresh ashes: here is grandma again.

Completely unrecognisable; no human but a mere memory of what once was.

Most crematoria tend to be both very distant in their interior: a lot of endless white hallways and the use of very neutral colors such as sand, beige, grey, white, and black. But you can see that effort is made to create a home in the family and condolences rooms. Or at least, they started the transition to transform those places.

Here I could often find the comfy couches, bright-colored art, warm-colored pillows, and sometimes even a fireplace or bar with drinks. I assume the industry figured that being around a dead body is gruesome enough and that people prefer to focus on celebrating the person the corpse once was, rather than regarding the corpse as a Halloween prop installed on a cooling mat.

But what about cemeteries? One thing: moss-colored green watering cans. At every cemetery I went to, those watering cans were present. They are locked to the trees with some bike lock. But still, for 50 cents, you could rent one for yourself, and water the plants and wildflowers around the place. Next to that detail, it is harder to tell you the design choices that went down at these places. Because different from the crematory, cemeteries have existed and been in use much longer. A cremation in itself only lasts an afternoon, a grave you rent for at least a few years.

After visiting a few cemeteries I regard those more and more as time capsules of society. At the cemetery, you can see the funeral industry trends come and go. I have seen glass headstones with bright-colored pictures. Your average headstones with just a simple name and date. I have walked past statutes, mausolea, and even a little graveyard inside a bigger one (the grave of family Vissering).

Next and on top of those graves, I have seen bottles and glasses of wine, beer cans, stuffed animals, children's toys, little christ statues, Christmas trees, fake flowers, picture frames, necklaces, little notes, books, ornaments, candles and even at one grave a tall glass with cigarette butts.

I assume that what brings us comfort is seeing the living human being present surrounding their deaths. The traces of someone that used to be there, give us the feeling that we are not alone in dealing with grief. Tending to a grave and creating little traditions like leaving notes, lighting up a candle, or arranging flowers, gives us the feeling we are still connected to the person long gone. But also: it makes us connect to the living person that could walk past the grave after we went home. Could it be it is the spectators that give us comfort in times of grieving and death?

Even if the spectator is a duck swimming by, or a bird whistling in a tree. It makes us feel seen, and being seen makes time feel more valid. Being seen and the act of seeing, situates us in the here and now.

And 'having time' gives us the most comfort of all.