Skogskyrkogården, The Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden
In the quiet of this crisp windless morning, the trees seem so still. The tall pines surround the graves, solemn in their silence, as though they are mourners gathered around for a perpetual funeral ceremony. As rigid as the tombstones, they seem to be empathising with the dead that they watch over.
Yet the trees are alive, strong and healthy. Their stillness does not mean death. It means peace. And this is what they reflect back out through the cemetery.
These pines give us comfort to lay loved ones to rest here because they will never be alone. As the sun passes across the sky, as snow falls and melts, as more join them in the earth, they lie in a park of peace. And all around, watching on, are the towering living trees.
At Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm – known as The Woodland Cemetery in English – life and death are fused together. The natural course of a human’s story is commemorated in a place where man and nature meet. That was the aim of the cemetery’s design, which was guided by gentle hands.
Between 1917 and 1920, two young Swedish architects, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, created Skogskyrkogården after winning a design competition for the job. Unlike most cemetery design at the time, there was no rigid structure to the layout. It acquiesced to the elements of the landscape, rather than bending the ground to its will. There was something primitive to the concept.
And, thinking about it, is that not life? We are all primitive at our core, following our base instincts as we navigate through the years we’ve been gifted. We cannot bend nature to suit us, we live within its boundaries. But rarely do we find our time taking us down a straight path without unexpected curves.
I don’t know exactly what was in the minds of Asplund and Lewerentz as they laid out this cemetery. Some of their comments in later years referred to a return to the past. The rejection of discipline in the design was, in some ways, a rejection of the idea of industrialisation that was taking hold in Sweden at the time. They found influence in old Nordic culture and symbols. Those buried were saved from the cities and returned to a primordial landscape.
Near the main entrance, rising up from the landscape and silhouetted by the sky, is a large dark granite cross. It’s a striking welcome (or farewell) to the Woodland Cemetery, a symbolic introduction to what lays ahead, a transition from the life outside to the death within.
Despite the obvious relationship to Christianity, the architects also rejected that exclusive connection in later years, claiming the shape is open to interpretation even by non-Christians. “To those who see it as such, a consolation, to those who do not, simply a cross.”
Because who are they to tell any of us what to believe? Who are they to force a particular meaning on anything within Skogskyrkogården?
Life does not have a simple single meaning. Our conscious years are what we make of them, meandering through the forest of our time, primitive and natural.
Like in death, we hope we are not alone, we hope we are looked after, we hope we find peace.
That’s the meaning I take from my time at the Woodland Cemetery on this crisp windless morning in Stockholm.