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Grave Matters

Paul Alt and the Architechture of Death

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Paul Alt, a 33-year-old architect who lives in Evanston, finds it tragic that at a time when America is beset by violence and disease we seem so ill prepared emotionally to contend with death. "Americans have simply forgotten how to mourn," he declares. "This has very serious consequences for us. We experience losses of many kinds throughout our lives, and dealing with death helps us cope with life."

After five years of intensive study Alt is also convinced that this country's public places of mourning--cemeteries and other sites intended for the contemplation of death--are woefully inadequate. But he believes that he and other architects can create spaces that meet this need.

Since his undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota Alt has been interested in how people react to the way buildings and other places are designed, in the "psychological experience" of bricks and mortar. After two close friends, women in their early 20s, died a few years ago, he decided to travel to Italy to study how well or badly cemeteries help people in mourning.

Armed with a telephoto lens, he observed mourners from afar and sometimes interviewed them. He witnessed people carrying on imaginative conversations with their dead relatives, while others seemed to seek advice from the deceased. During a rainstorm he saw a man frantically racing back and forth with a shovel, tamping fresh earth down around his dead wife's grave as if he feared the rain would carry her away. "Tending the grave is a very important part of the healing process," Alt says. A widow sweeping out the mausoleum where her husband's remains were complained loudly, "I kept your house and swept your floors when you were alive--and now I sweep for you when you are dead!" Alt says that anger too is a natural stage of bereavement.

In cemeteries across Italy Alt watched how mourners were affected by their surroundings--what stopped them, where they went to be alone with their grief. Stooping slightly to bring his six-foot-five point of view down to the average person's, he saw how walls, ramps, foyers, landscaping, and varying elevations could be used to create transitions from the outside world to the more intimate world where one encounters death.

He discovered some very simple principles of successful cemetery design. The successful cemetery has a definite gate or threshold marking the passage from the "outer" to the "inner" world of the cemetery. It has transitional spaces, often created with landscaping and familiar symbols--sculptures, urns, broken pillars, religious emblems--that make it easier for a visitor to approach a grave. It allows the grave site itself to be a personal, intimate place where flowers or keepsakes can be left. It encourages contemplation. It is a place to go "to project into the future what your life's course in the shadow of death will be." It is the opposite of the unsubdivided expanses of modern American cemeteries.

Alt was particularly struck by a private Italian tomb commissioned for the industrialist Giuseppe Brion by his wife, Onorina, and designed in the late 60s and early 70s by the maverick architect Carlo Scarpa. The Brion Tomb is a walled, grassy, L-shaped space adjacent to the village cemetery of San Vito d'Altivole. At the corner of the L an ivy-covered concrete canopy arches over the sunken sarcophagi of Brion and his wife. From this place, the focal point of the cemetery, one looks across the lawn toward a chapel on one side and a pavilion perched above a pool on the other.

Alt saw many examples here of how a visitor can be coaxed through passageways and spaces, encouraged to reflect on the past. A stepping-stone path leads across a moatlike pond with submerged "ruins," which marks the entrance to the chapel used for funerals and other ceremonies. Walking through a cloister toward the pavilion, you step on plates of stone that echo under your feet. As you approach the glass doorway through which you can see the pavilion, a hidden pulley system drops the door, inviting you to step across the threshold onto the narrow bridge that crosses the pool. The pavilion itself, a small box-shaped structure set on four thin columns above the water, suggests a teahouse.

Some details emphasize the fragility of life: crushed limestone at shoulder height along a courtyard wall reflects the visitor's image, which skitters like an apparition. Other details emphasize the permanence and continuities of nature and human culture: angled and filtered light in the pavilion focuses attention on the sky, and the grassy lawn invites picnicking. Villagers also step inside the walls to dip buckets into the pools so they can water graves in the public cemetery.

Alt sees allusions to both Western and Asian cultures in these details--a reaching for universal symbols, a broad collective memory of human culture. "The link is the primordial symbols and experience--what is journey, what is gate, what is water, what is enclosure?" He believes that it is Scarpa's willingness to break tradition and incorporate universal rather than particular symbols that makes the Brion Tomb such a success.

The visitors to the tomb when Alt was there seemed to have one of two reactions. "Either they would be deeply disturbed, uncomfortable, or they would become very introspective. Obviously if something was bothering them in loss, in death--and I've had this discussion with people where they've had a loss that they didn't know how to deal with--it was evoking that." In either case, he says, "the tomb has done its job--it has evoked emotional and psychological response. That is one of the most important essences of architecture."

Three years ago at an informal gathering on the North Shore Alt found himself talking with an 88-year-old psychologist who'd studied in Europe with Carl Jung. "The topic was death, and he asked me what I was doing. I explained, and he goes, 'Well, why did you do it?' And I go, 'Well, I wanted to understand how my friends felt, the survivors.' You know, the emphasis on those left behind, because they had gone through tremendous grief and shock.

"And he goes, 'No, no, no. You weren't doing it to find out how they were feeling. You were doing it because you were mourning.' I said, 'You're right, of course.'"

That realization only sharpened Alt's awareness of those in our society who mourn not only dead loved ones but shattered relationships and lost jobs. "You can often see it in cafes," he says. "This is where people who have lost friends or loved ones to death come to be alone but be amongst people. That's what I did for four months. You don't want to talk to anybody, but you want to be among people. It makes you see things in other people. I understand immediately. Oftentimes I can see it on their faces, even before I talk to them. It's a look of loss, of mourning."

A couple of years ago Alt met a University of Chicago professor of religion and psychological studies, Peter Homans, who helped him understand what he'd experienced and seen. "Homans brought the words to what I went through, and I can verify his theories," says Alt. "He gave me something very tangible to explore further." Homans, author of The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis, later taught a course with Alt at U. of C.'s divinity school called "Monuments and Mourning."

With Homans, Alt believes that when people deny death or loss, when they fail to grieve or mourn, it can result in depression, apathy, or an unhealthy sense of having been victimized by the lost loved one. But successful mourning can lead to personal growth and fresh understandings; it can even foster personal achievement.

Both men believe that meaningful rituals, familiar symbols like monuments, and institutions like cemeteries that incorporate both can help this process. As an example, Homans cites Eleanor Roosevelt's devastation upon discovering her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer. Eleanor frequently drove to the Rock Creek Cemetery to sit near a sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens commemorating Henry Adams's wife, Clover, who committed suicide when she learned of her husband's infidelity. The sculpture is titled Peace of God, but Eleanor knew it as "Grief." To her this shrouded image of a strong, beautiful young woman came to symbolize the triumph of personal spirit over adversity.

"This is an example of the basic human sequence [of mourning]," says Homans. "There is loss, mourning, 'individuation,' and creation of meaning. Mourning is the working through of the loss. With individuation you become somebody completely different--you change, one way or another. Then you create a substitute, which is also a new thing, for the lost object.

"There are many kinds of death," he goes on. "This experience was the turning point in Eleanor Roosevelt's life. When she worked through this loss of her domestic life as she had believed it, she became the Eleanor Roosevelt we know--she went on her own, she developed her own values, her own views of things. Before that she was simply an extension of Franklin."

Homans admires Alt's desire to create places that could help modern Americans grieve and search for new understanding. "What attracted me about Paul was that he was an architect who was interested in mourning, and that he was what I call a culture maker, not just a culture analyzer."

But both men know Alt is up against a changed culture. Americans once took their cemeteries seriously, but Kenneth T. Jackson's Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery reports declining visits and maintenance at most of this country's 150,000 cemeteries. For the most part, Americans now shun them.

Alt is well aware that traditional cemetery symbols such as figures and crosses don't have the kind of resonance they once had for mourners and that cremation is growing increasingly popular--phenomena Homans thinks may be related to the disintegration of many Americans' belief in the afterlife. But Alt believes cemeteries are far more important than we realize. "The consequences of the absence of these sacred spaces and the collective consciousness of the need to remember are the ills manifested within our society today," he says. "Architecture has to reintroduce some provision for the dead among the living and has to do it in a way which is bold and makes people conscious of human values, of life's value."

Alt believes he can find clues in traditional cemeteries about what kinds of spaces and symbols could facilitate mourning for a new age. Visiting cemeteries may seem a grim business, but not for Alt, who has toured most of Chicago's better-known burial sites.

The east entrance to the 135-year-old Rosehill Cemetery, the final resting place for nearly 200,000 people, between Ravenswood and Western south of Peterson, that was acquired four years ago by the Houston-based giant Service Corporation International, is an imposing turreted building. "The gate tells us that we are entering a different realm," Alt says, and gets out of the car. "Traditional cemeteries are meant to be walked, so you can take in the full effect." He surveys the expanse of obelisks, columns, tilted crosses, broken columns, and Greco-Roman pillared tombs among handsome hardwood trees. "If you close your eyes and squint, you'd think you were in some ruined city. And it is--the city of the dead."

He is stunned by the grave of 16-year-old Lulu Fellows, who died in 1883. A raised sculpture of the girl rests with a book in her lap above the inscription "Many hopes lie buried here." The sculpture is protected from the elements by a Plexiglas case, but through the vents have been pushed offerings of pennies and cloth flowers. "Children's likenesses are always riveting," says Alt.

Near the center of the cemetery is a mirror of a pond, with geese and a heron. On its banks are beautiful stone mausoleums. "The high-rent district," jokes Alt. "The real estate, even in cemeteries, is the nicest around the water." Water evokes a sense of peace, he observes, a return to the wellspring of life.

"Rosehill has winding paths that are wonderful because the turning makes you look at the surrounds, preparing you for the encounter with your loved one. The trees and the vegetation are very symbolic of the ephemeral, the cyclical nature of life and death. And the monuments and the stones give you the location--you can take any of multiple routes to your loved one. You recognize the signs along the way." These signs soon become familiar, Alt explains, and then they help the visitor make the psychological transition from the outside world to the world of death.

He comes upon an Asian American family tending a cluster of red and white flowers. The middle-aged woman and young man and woman seem comfortable together. The older woman directs. The young man, laughing, a soft drink in one hand, uses a hose to water plants and sod. "This is something you rarely see in an American cemetery," Alt says, though it's still an accepted ritual elsewhere in the world.

On the way back he encounters a man with a vase of red carnations at Lulu's grave. "Sixteen years old and she passed away," the man says. "That was very young. I like this one, and that is why I bring flowers." He says he's brought flowers many times, and cemetery employees say that such offerings have been left at Lulu's grave for more than 100 years.

At the cemetery office Alt asks Rosehill's historian, David Wendell, about Americans' reluctance to visit cemeteries. "Up until the turn of the century cemeteries were not places that they were scared to go," he says. "But when we had parklands, at least in Chicago, people didn't have to go to the cemetery anymore. So this stigma began to develop and it continues to this day." Sales counselor Sam Calabrese, a first-generation Italian American, says he "grew up with a family that took me to the cemetery at least three times a month. And we had a picnic out there, and they tended to the graves and watered them and carried on."

Rosehill, Graceland, and Oakwood--the successors of the small church graveyards and the original, unornamented Chicago City Cemetery, which was established in 1842 but relocated after 1866 for public-health reasons--were on the outskirts of the city when they were founded in the mid-1800s. Designed by distinguished cemetery planners--including Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned the city's park system--they quickly became places for both individual contemplation and social celebration. The large open park at Bohemian National Cemetery, bordered by Foster and Pulaski, was once used for meetings, political rallies, and picnics. Alt finds much to applaud in this image of the living almost literally dancing among the dead.

Back at Rosehill's east gate Alt declares, "It feels good to be alive. And that's the whole point--to make people think about it. You've lost a whole culture that hasn't been thinking about it. They see death on TV, in the movies, and they forget about the reality of it--that we're not here forever, and while we are perhaps we should make some significant contributions and treat people like people, find our human sides again."

Alt also learns from later cemeteries where little consideration has been given to the mourner. Burr Oak Cemetery in south-suburban Alsip--the final resting place of legendary Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon and a host of less-heralded blues performers--is typical of many World War II-vintage memorial parks in the Chicago area. It's surrounded by a chain-link fence, and on two sides are busy streets. Inside the iron gate is a small office with prominently displayed markers and monuments for sale. The maintenance garage is nearby. Except for a few older sites near the front fence, graves are marked by flat stones or bronze markers, all flush to the ground and lined up evenly in rows in sections with names like Maplewood, Evergreen, and Select Singles. Noisy maintenance crews leave in their wake bent or nicked plastic flowers. Real flowers and natural plantings are prohibited, as they are at many American cemeteries. Surely Willie Dixon is still singing the blues here.

"It's really just a clearing defined by freeways and woods and a residential area," says Alt. "What's interesting is you see no erect stones. It kind of looks like the aftermath of a party--and they left all these plastic flowers. The aesthetics are terrible. Sterile. It's almost like these flowers are just cartoons."

Flat stones are cheaper than upright stones. Their use also reduces the cost of mowing and maintenance. But from a distance flat markers are almost invisible, providing no more landmarks than a golf course--and nothing to help ease the visitor's transition from the outside world. "What's not working here is you have very little feeling of architectural or landscape triggers that give you the feeling of this as a place where you really want to be. There is a complete loss of symbols. No icons to identify with."

Newer suburban cemeteries are even more rigid, more gridlike, more densely packed, says Alt. Their near anonymity makes him think of the potter's fields once reserved for burying the homeless and the indigent. But he sees a lack of sensitivity in the design of even better-financed cemeteries, including the suburban mausoleums constructed in the past decade and a half by the archdiocese of Chicago.

Both the older and newer mausoleums at Queen of Heaven in Hillside represent huge expenditures. Alt finds the original building "opulent" when he visits, but he also calls it "disturbing, detached absolutely from nature." Flowers are prohibited, though mourners defiantly tape small flowers to the cold fronts of the vaults.

The interior of the 20,000-vault mausoleum completed in the late 1980s, with its severe lines, steel railings, tinted skylights, and vertical files of the dead, reminds Alt of a cold corporate office building. The building is uncluttered (easy to maintain), well-organized, and symmetrical--like a skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe. But, Alt asks, "Who wants to feel cold steel? I want to feel wood."

This building's saving grace is its exterior. Outside vaults are stacked in cubelike modules surrounded by well-designed courtyard gardens. Benches have open common boxes, and flowers, keepsakes, and photographs of children fill them. But even here, says Alt, there's "no common thread, no ceremonial entryway or transition."

Around the large mausoleums are cemeteries where the dead are interred conventionally: underground in caskets beneath generally flat stones arranged in gridlike patterns. Sometimes statues overlook portions of these cemeteries, but Alt points out that they're "very generic, not evoking any emotion at all."

He finds some of the qualities he admires in an outdoor columbarium, a cemetery where cremated remains are deposited, at Christ Church in Winnetka. The sloping, English-style, multilevel garden has low ivy-covered stone walls with small niches where the remains of parishioners are placed. The walls intersect, creating small enclosed spaces at different elevations, all sheltered by hardwood trees, and a narrow margin of soil between the walls and the mowed grass has been left for plants and flowers. The corners of the cemetery are anchored by an iron gate, a stone chapel, and a large stone cross. Alt believes this is just the sort of place where people can find some kind of comfort in living, even though they're in the presence of the dead. "This is gorgeous," he says. "I could imagine picnicking here. The natural light sort of dances in--the light and shadows. A beautiful metaphor."

In tiny New Harmony, Indiana, Alt believes he may have found the appropriate spot to build his own contemplative place based on the principles he discovered at the Brion Tomb. The village, built on the lowlands of the Wabash River just above where it empties into the Ohio, was home in the 1800s to two utopian communities, one religious, one secular. The first was a community of apocalyptic German Rappites who'd fled persecution by the Lutheran Church. They were succeeded in 1824 by an experiment in communal living conceived by the visionary Scottish industrialist Robert Owen.

Large portions of the original land and structures are now in the hands of the Blaffer Foundation, which has created a kind of cultural greenhouse there, sponsoring conferences on art, poetry, theology, philosophy, literature, and film, drawing participants from all over the world. The historical structures have been restored, and impressive examples of modern architecture have been added, including Philip C. Johnson's Roofless Church, Richard Meier's Atheneum Museum, and Tillich's Park, where the influential University of Chicago theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich is buried.

Alt's Labyrinth of Remembering, which would be set close to the river, would incorporate symbolic "ruins," such as remnants of walls and Stonehenge-like pillars. Its centerpiece would be an enclosed, womblike, below-grade rotunda entered via a single ramp. Inside one would glimpse through apertures a pondering pavilion and the pool that feeds a waterfall. A raised walkway that curves around the rotunda would either lead outward to the pondering pavilion or descend into a cavern containing tombs.

But the labyrinth would not be simply a place of death. Outside the rotunda paths would wind through gardens that could be used for open-air concerts, performances, lectures, readings.

The labyrinth would be in a rural setting, but Alt believes it's the kind of place that belongs in public urban areas. "It could be a contemplative space and place of conflict resolution in the inner city," he says.

He's now working with Chicago schools and foundations to study how specially designed spaces in the city's neighborhoods could build a sense of community and help defuse tensions. These places could include contemplative places in schools and parks as well as new kinds of cemeteries. "We've lost our sanctuaries in the inner city," says Alt. "Playgrounds, parks, and other public places have become dangerous. The idea is to replace this vacuum with new places of community, intertwining the commemoration of those who have lost their lives to urban violence with the biography of our new cultural beliefs. These new places would accommodate solitude and contemplation, as well as be places of life, for culture making and for celebrating the uniqueness of all the cultures that are today's Chicago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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