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A reluctance to face death

London is one giant grave. Our current homes and workplaces sit on layers and layers of bones belonging to previous generations of Londoners. Between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations, the Piccadilly line tunnel curves because it was impossible to drill through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park. What we have really done is to carve out a place for ourselves among the dead; the glittering pinnacles of commerce rise along the skyline, their foundations sunk in a charnel house; and the lost lie forgotten below us as, overhead, we persuade ourselves that we are immortal and carry on the business of life.

The topic has been eradicated from all spaces of modern life. What we find so difficult to face is that death establishes itself in duration, it lasts an infinite amount of time. Although it is impossible to rely on medicine to cure us of everything and anything, facing death almost goes against the profession’s function, hence explaining why the medical field itself cannot develop a way of relating to it. To everyone, including those who fight it, death has become an obscenity. The dialogue with it has fallen silent, particularly now that cremation is becoming increasingly popular. Indeed, it is a process that denies a full architectural response to the mystery and solemnity of death.

The way weaving see and relate to death has been translated quite literally into the space of the cemetery over history. Up until the 18th century, when people believed in the existence of a soul and in the process of reincarnation, it was not as crucial to give the body a comfortable resting place. However, as a deep and sentimental concern for the corpse was born, everyone then gained the right to their own little box for their own little personal decay.  Hygiene preoccupations and issues of overcrowding further contributed to pushing the spaces for the dead towards the outskirts, and the cemetery went from being the sacred immortal heart of the city to being the ‘other city,’ where each family member possesses its dark resting place.

A city of the Dead on London’s rooftops

A parallel city emerges on top of the existing London. A negative world, a space for the dead, starts to grow on the rooftops. Londoners install their families to rest above their heads; the profiles of tombstones and mausoleums gradually shape a new skyline for the city. The inhabitants can easily pay a visit to their deceased grandparents and water the flowers planted for them, making the leap from life to death less abrupt. The cemetery located on a ring-road or by-pass and accessible only by car is replaced by little gardens of peace above every house in the very centre of the city. Rather than keeping the cemetery enclosed by gates and/or trees, hence clearly distinguishing between its inside and the rest of the urban fabric, the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex.

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