Last Landscapes by Ken Worpole

Exploring the literature and politics of death
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The Independent Culture

Why do we welcome photographers at christenings and weddings, but not at funerals? Isn't this just as important a family rite? Today, the only visual setting where funerals flourish is the cinema or television screen. Here, the deaths have nothing directly to do with the audience. On the other hand, the directors acknowledge the huge emblematic power of death and its accompanying rituals.

Many visitors, going to a new village or town, look first at the graveyard. "Like libraries," Ken Worpole notes in Last Landscapes, "cemeteries are quiet, catalogued and annotated." It is where the memories are: the city of Bologna has 450,000 living inhabitants, but 700,000 buried dead. In the east London borough of Newham, cemeteries account for 61 per cent of public open space.

Yet, as Worpole points out in his remarkable and attractive study of the architecture of the cemetery in Europe and North America, British architects and planners pay no attention to this most symbolic of places. Three-quarters of the dead are shuffled away in bleak municipal crematoria. The exceptions are telling. A dead child is usually buried, not cremated, because there is then a dedicated place to sit and grieve.

Worpole has written one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking books of this year. With photographer Larraine Worpole, he has walked down the overgrown paths of the great Victorian cemeteries, such as Highgate or Abney Park; scaled the slopes of Glasgow's blackened Necropolis; explored the jostling tombs of Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde in Père-Lachaise in Paris; sampled the "good grave culture" of Sweden.

He captures the bleakness of many newer British cemeteries: rows of undifferentiated graves in a layout mainly designed to make things mechanically easier for grass-cutters. As life becomes more heterodox, "death becomes more mundane"; but cemeteries, graveyards, burying grounds, are "places that should suggest something of the ineffable". As a child, Worpole was "intrigued and disquieted" by gravestones. But, all these years later, he found his explorations "strangely uplifting". So is his book. The cemetery, he pleads convincingly, is a "pivotal landscape" with "moral power": a site where "past and future beliefs" come together.

Worpole is a utopian at heart, but admirably fair-minded. He dislikes the blandness of California's Forest Lawn (mocked by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One), because it draws "the sting of death". But he acknowledges that cemeteries play "a key role in American civic memory and identity". He speaks highly of the trend towards "natural" burials, where bodies are left to rot in bio-degradable graves in woodland. Here's a paradox. These places are not "in the least frightening or morbid". Wasn't this also the aim of the creators of Forest Lawn?

Last Landscapes explores the anthropology, literature and politics of death, and leaves the reader full of afterthoughts. How strange that Soviet-style communism, which killed so many, should also have been so afraid of the dead. In Moscow, graveyards were bulldozed and the marble used to decorate the Metro, Stalin's advertisement for a future Workers' Paradise. In Prague, the party apparatchiks ordered whitewash to be painted over the names listed on the memorial to Jews taken off to Nazi extermination camps. O death, here is thy victory!