Can a place for the dead be a place for the living?

Challenge

Urban cemeteries are loaded with emotional significance, yet their ideal location and natural beauty give them tremendous recreational potential. How can we celebrate life, while still respecting the dead?

Approach

We immersed ourselves in the thoughts of recreational visitors and funeral attendees at Vestre and Bispebjerg cemeteries in Copenhagen, allowing us to probe areas of tension and seek opportunity spaces that could reconcile the two groups.

Result

An urban development strategy for Copenhagen cemeteries that spans the next 50 years, with a focus on the green spaces.

Københavns Kommune

We can respectfully share space with the dead – if we design the space to guide the appropriate and desirable behavior

"IS IT A BIRD's work has given us new and very valuable insights into what the cemeteries mean to people and how we best develop the cemetery of the future in a way, that reflects the citizens' values and needs. The project ended with some very useful solution ideas that helped increase the value of our work and give it a clear strategic direction."

Annemette Fredslund Aagaard, Project Manager, Byes Drift, Copenhagen Municipality

Introduction

Recreation in an emotional space

Today more people than ever lean towards cremation rather than burial in coffins; this frees up a great deal of space on the cemetery grounds with the potential to be developed for alternative recreational purposes. Even so, the cemetery is still a place loaded with emotional significance and symbolic meaning, leading to conflicting citizen interests.



The City of Copenhagen was interested in understanding which new ways of using this urban space would be seen as acceptable, relevant and meaningful by its citizens. We needed to introduce the voice of the citizen and present their needs to the City.

Method

Routines, thoughts and feelings of the cemetery’s users

Using a combination of ethnographic methods allowed us to gain deep insights into the routines, thoughts and feelings of the cemetery’s users. We carried out in-depth interviews with them in their homes, exploring their relationship with the cemetery space, what role it plays in their everyday life, and their thoughts on its future development.

We went on walks with them, experienced their daily routines, favourite spots, as well as the parts they avoided. We actively used maps as a way to compare our respondents’ mental maps of the cemetery with the actual layout and composition of the space. We took neighborhood walks with our non-users to get an understanding of what spaces they use, and why the cemetery didn’t make the cut in their mental map.

While some people experience the cemetery as a place of mourning, a backyard, or an oasis for escaping city life, we also found non-users who perceive the cemetery as a risky, inaccessible space they feel excluded from, and integrated their perspectives.

“Here you can see where the graves are, and where there are path-ways, you know? This is a good place for taking walks”

Guest

Result

Recommendations for the next 50 years

We identified three opportunities, which each set a direction for the future of the cemeteries, and addressed a number of the tensions we identified. The recommendations help ensure that all citizens are welcomed inside, while different types of behavior and usage co-exist harmoniously.

The recommendations are currently being implemented in the City Council’s development plan for Copenhagen’s cemeteries for the next 50 years.

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