Pondering grave matters

Ken Worpole mixes with the mourners at Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, where in death all are equal
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Even on a bitter January morning it is easy to forget the cold in the bustle of central Stockholm, the Venice of the North. Giant Baltic ferries sail right into the heart of the city, just below the ochre cliffs of 17th and 18th-century buildings rising out of the water on the islands of Gamla Stan and Sodermalm. Everybody ignores the ice and snow and gets on with daily life as in any other major city. But just a few stops from T Centralen, the central underground station, you step out into a landscape that combines the aspirations of 20th- century Nordic architectural modernism with a careful attempt to evoke the pagan desolation of prehistoric Sweden. This is the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery.

Designed by Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Leweretz, respectively in their time Sweden's foremost architect and landscape designer, the half- century-long project was finished in 1961. It is one of the very few attempts in 20th-century Europe to create a thoroughly new kind of urban cemetery. In doing so Asplund and Leweretz broke completely with the European and Islamic traditions of the necropolis and the paradise garden to create a landscape in which the individual memorial was subsumed within a powerful "natural" terrain.

There was also a painterly influence to the project. As you enter the main gate, all you see is a view of a gentle but massive snow-covered grass knoll and an uninterrupted view of iron grey sky. One third: two- thirds - the classical landscape proportions - connected only by a vast granite cross that locks earth and sky together.

The symbolic meaning of the cross remains in dispute. It is based on a recurring image in the work of the artist Caspar David Friedrich, generally assumed to be German but in fact a Swede by birth. In most of Friedrich's melancholy, forested and mountainous landscapes there is at least one wayfarer's cross, a sign of hope in an otherwise abandoned world. Asplund and Leweretz claimed that the cross was open to non-Christian interpretation, and quoted Friedrich himself: "To those who see it as such, a consolation; to those who do not, simply a cross." To the side of the cross is a path which leads up the hill to the main Monumental Hall, a vast, angular, open-plan colonnaded temple in a style that mixes national romanticism withaggressive functionalism. The views everywhere are of artificial ponds, earth mounds, oak circles, elm groves and natural pine forest, and it is deep in the last that the insignificant memorials and grave markers are mostly hidden.

But there is another current to this story: a deeper political and urban narrative. The development of the cemetery, and the active espousal of cremation, coincided with the rising influence of Swedish social democracy. Cremation was thought to foster a greater sense of equality in burial practices, eschewing the polarities of the ornate marble mausoleum at one extreme, and the pauper's grave at the other. A socially-conscious aesthetic - influenced by William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement - and emphasising the unity of art and life (or in this case art and death), promoted the idea that death and bereavement were part of a shared, enduring human condition rather than a matter for wholly private, occasionally ostentatious, grief. There was also a strong tradition of large processional funerals, with hundreds following the coffin with standards and trade union banners held aloft. Ironically, this tradition was finally broken by the success of social democracy itself.

Traditionally, most funerals were held at the weekend, when people were free from work, but with the achievement of paid leave, the public funeral was transformed almost immediately into a private affair.

Just such a funeral is taking place as I walk through the Monumental Hall: the men and women in dark overcoats shuffling and coughing as they wait for the hearse to arrive, some surreptitiously smoking cigarettes held hidden behind their backs; a punk teenage girl in pink is being glowered at by older family members. I take the train back into central Stockholm later with some of them. The electronic signs on the factory and office buildings we pass display the date, time and temperature. It is minus 9C, and colder than I have ever known it. I am also conscious of having witnessed, and then left behind, a unique experiment in urban design and culture: an attempt to combine a modernist aesthetic with the spirit of social democracy and a respect for the natural terrain. All three ideals now frozen solid beneath the snow; and the temperature going down.

`Staying Close to the River: Reflections on Travel & Politics', by Ken Worpole, is to be published by Lawrence & Wishart in May.