Architecture and the Meaning of Death

Both Resurrection Chapel and Chapel of the Holy Cross are sited unobtrusively in a park-like cemetery on the southeastern outskirts of Turku, Finland. They are both cemetery chapels, designed for funerary services. But the similarities end there. In fact, such functional similarities only accentuate their substantial differences — differences that are more than aesthetic, that in fact demonstrate conflicting approaches to the ancient ritual of burial. I am interested here in learning how architecture embodies belief and behavior. What do these structures say, and how is this meaning conveyed?

Resurrection Chapel

This small one-room chapel resides in a clearing in a forested area of the cemetery. Users approach the building by foot, walking through the main entry directly into the chapel: a two-story space bathed in light and shadow. With white plaster walls and gleaming terrazzo floors, the space is saved from being too cold by the wood benches, exterior views, and dramatic shadow and light. Subtle curves provide surfaces on which light from the high clerestory windows can be sculpted. The building is intimately connected to nature. Large southern picture windows draw views toward a grove of tall trees, and the setback of these windows prevents views of the sky. Skyward views are framed by the clerestory windows. The chapel's cross is off-center and illuminated by concealed southern windows, and greenery grows across the wall. The pews are angled in plan, oriented both toward the off-center cross and toward the exterior views. The body of the deceased rests at the front of the chapel during the service, and is subsequently carried out nearby doors into the grove of trees.

The building is easy to characterize: peaceful, calming, open, and at one with nature. But how is this character created? First, from procession: participants are never separated from nature but rather are continually interacting with it; the body moves out into nature. Second, from phenomenological experience: participants are presented with views of nature; they touch natural materials; they are oriented to the cardinal directions and to their location relative to the sun by the basic geometry of the building. Nature is brought into the building. Third, the chapel influences activity and perception: it directs participants where to focus their attention (due to the angle of the pews attention is split between the front of the church and the exterior views), and influencing the meanings they tend to associate with death and dying.

Indeed, the building communicates a number of messages about death and funerals. Death and nature are intertwined, thus death is seen as a natural process. The funerary service enacts a symbolic return to the natural world, to the grander cycles of life. Insofar as paganism is defined as finding spiritual significance in the natural world (rather than in the metaphysical), the building could be said to be pagan in its approach. The chapel tells participants that they can seek solace in natural processes and in the majesty of creation. The role of humans here is to guide these processes, helping to connect the realms of human society and the natural world. Finally, the chapel's intimate scale invites social interaction and participation in the rituals of burial and mourning. It is through these interactions that healing begins to occur.

Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy cross sits low in an open field. It is made primarily of concrete, shaped into massive orthogonal forms with narrow slits and punched openings for light. The chapel has an extensive program, with facilities in the basement for the preparation of bodies, and specially-designed conveyance systems to transport the bodies around the building with careful efficiently.

The process of entering the chapel can be characterized as a slow removal from nature. The spatial progression moves from the smaller-scale windowed lobby to the cavernous chapel. The darkness of this space accentuates the few slivers of light that are allowed to seep in. There are four sources of light. The first is from the side at ground level: a window opens to a tiny enclosed courtyard, but the intensity and glare of the light makes it difficult to look at. The second is a low skylight that washes the opposite wall, perhaps for balance. The third is a high skylight at the very rear of the chapel that runs along the entirety of the back wall, washing it in cold light. This light is diffused by the thickness of the concrete ceiling. The fourth are punched skylights at the front of the chapel that are placed directly above the dead body and serve to focus participants' attention forward.

The space is difficult to characterize adequately. It alternately seems expansive, harsh and looming, its brutal forms lacking softness of detail or material respite for the human hand; and pure, elegant and contemplative, its emptiness and simplicity almost mesmerizing. There are no views to the exterior. The view of the carefully-sculpted garden contained within concrete walls is more a continuation of the building than a natural landscape. The location, glare and intensity of the light from the skylights preclude views. Participants sit on concrete pews. The cavernous space exudes and invites silence. The ears measure the vastness of the space and the thickness of the walls; yet we never mistake this for natural cavern: it is too precise, too calculated. Even the echoes are flat. Participants are forced to focus inwardly, and on the body of the deceased. This is a time for mourning and internal reflection. Upon completion of the service, the body descends through a trap door in the floor into the basement, where it will be prepared for burial. The mood is solemn, cold, even repressive.

The experience and structure of this chapel sends numerous messages about death and dying. First, the brutality of the space seems to echo the brutality of death: both are cold and permanent. Second, the chapel's internal focus and preference for silence and meditation asks participants to look inward for strength. The funerary process is interpreted as a time for internal reflection. We find no solace in nature here; we must find strength within ourselves. Third, the building represents a dramatic departure from traditional notions of death by locating power and control with humans and human institutions. The service is removed from the broader processes of the natural world: the body is prepared by humans and moved by machines. The body disappears downward, which might be interpreted as mimicking traditional notions of return to the earth were it not for the decidedly mechanical overtones of the process: the body disappears not into the ground, but rather into the basement. This is not an insignificant shift. People control this process and they control is with mechanical efficiency. Moreover, the process is anonymous: we do not see the people who control this process. There is much going on in secrecy, behind-the-scenes. These are processes, the building implies, that we do not want to see. Death becomes unclean, unknown, disconcerting. This lack of participation, in combination with the cleanliness — even sterility — of the building, conveys messages of isolation, enclosure, and precise control. Evidently these are not meanings that resonate with the general populace: many of the locals will wait for weeks to use Resurrection Chapel rather than have a funeral service here.


Meaning can be embedded in the form and use of architectural space. The two chapels convey dramatically different messages about death and dying. They convey these messages through the structure of the space and spatial experience, by the processes they support, and by the types of interactions that they facilitate or subvert. Whether or not these messages were intentional was not a question addressed here, because I am not certain that it ultimately matters. The intent of the architect certainly influenced the shape and function of the building, but ultimately the building is what matters. The meaning of a space is situated in the perception and experience of the participants, not in the conceptual orientation of the designer.

copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...