Skogskyrkogården, Woodland Cemetery, is considered one of the most important works of modern architecture of the 20th century. The cemetery is located in Sockenvägen, Enskede about a ten-minute drive south from Stockholm, Sweden. In 1994, Skogskyrkogården was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site given its newly conceived design and the influence that this design has had on burial sites throughout the last century.
In 1850, Stockholm’s population was about 93,000. Over the next half century, the industrial revolution took place and Stockholm was booming. An example of this growth is that in 1897, Djurgården, an island in Stockholm, hosted The General Art and Industrial Exposition, otherwise known as The World’s Fair. By the year 1900, Stockholm’s population had tripled to 300,000.
Due to this rise, in 1912 the city council decided on a site for a new cemetery south of the city. The council had some novel ideas for this cemetery and wanted to veer away from a cemetery with only traditional rows of monuments. In order to find a winning design for the cemetery, they announced an international design competition with the intent for the designers to take advantage of the natural features and underlying landscape. The land included former gravel pits on a ridge. It had clear open space right next to a dense woodland forest. Over fifty designers submitted proposals. Many of the designers missed the mark and didn’t take advantage of the full landscape in their plans. Ultimately, the architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz won first prize with their proposal called “Tallum,” with the project to begin in 1917.
Their design endeavored to create something different than the traditional cemeteries being built at the time. The land, with its open space and dense forest were two opposites. However, they needed to bring them together seamlessly into one. Today this approach is common, but back then this idea was unique. They did this brilliantly through the use of bringing together other opposites as well, such as light and dark, natural and man-made structures, or viewing open landscape and closing off a view. Through the combination of architecture, hardscaping, and vegetation these elements were blended together creating a journey that would have a lasting impact on those visiting, full of meaning and also conjure feelings such as the passage of time.
For the next two decades, the two architects gradually constructed their plan for the cemetery. Asplund designed most of the buildings, The Woodland Chapel, The Woodland Crematorium and its three chapels, Faith, Hope, and the Holy Cross, and the Tallum Pavillion. Lewerentz designed the grounds and landscaping. He also designed the Chapel of Resurrection. This photo shows the site as it was in 1930.
There are two routes once you have passed through the enclosed and inclined entrance for the cemetery. Following the route to the left of the main entrance, leads you to view an open vista that includes a large granite cross and the portico of the Woodland Crematorium and three chapels (Faith, Hope, and the Holy Cross). The Granite Cross stands out in the open rolling landscape and is designed after a painting titled “Cross on the Baltic Sea,” by Caspar David Freidrich. Asplund and Lewerentz both said that the cross was open to non-Christian interpretations and was meant to represent hope in an abandoned world.
Asplund finished building The Woodland Crematorium and the three chapels in early 1940. Inside the abstract portico of the Holy Cross Chapel with its stately pillars, mimicking the tree trunks found in the woodland, is a statue named “Resurrection,” by sculptor John Lundqvist. The sculpture is open to the sky through an atrium and is well lit throughout the day. Between each chapel is a garden courtyard designed to provide space to connect nature with the man-made structures, divide the chapels so multiple services could be held at once, and for use as a peaceful respite.
When following the path to the right of the main entrance one sees Almhojden, the Meditation Grove. Stairs were placed on the hill to reach the grove. Each set of stairs lengthens and each step is shorter to make the climb easier as you reach the top.
At the top of this gentle hill stands a grove of elm trees. These trees create a beautiful setting for meditation and scenery in this romantic landscape and can be viewed from outdoor seating, across the pond, at The Woodland Crematorium and Memorial Hall with its three chapels.
Asplund and Lewerentz thought of even the smallest details, such as the design of the outdoor benches. They have a slight bend at the middle, enabling conversation while sitting on the benches and to help people not feel alone.
The Woodland Chapel is nestled amongst the trees in the Nordic forest. It was the first chapel in the cemetery, built in the 1920s. A path through the woods leads to its entrance. The portico is deep and includes 12 white columns which support a pyramid-like steep roof. The woods and darkness of the portico stand in contrast to entering the chapel with its circular dome which allows light to filter in. Above the entrance area on the portico is a small statue, by Carl Milles, the little Angel of Death. The lock on the door includes a small black skull. To unlock it, the key is inserted into the eye of the skull. These small details nudge at the living with a reminder of what we cannot escape.
The Chapel of Resurrection and its surrounding pathways and grounds are perfect examples of supporting mourners through this difficult time. Seven Springs Way, is a straight path nearly 1000 yards long, which is lined first with weeping birches, not being very tall, then with common birches, which are a little taller. As mourners continue walking down the path the vegetation that surrounds them thickens and grows in height. Pines and then spruces are further down the path. The walk starts out well-lit and darkens as it continues on, with the mourners becoming more melancholy as they reach their destination for services. Another example of opposites, light and dark, in nature affecting the human state.
The tall neoclassical pillars of the Chapel of Resurrection can be viewed at the end of the path, where funeral services are held. Inside the chapel, which is built in the style of a neoclassical temple, there is one large window which floods the room with light, an altar, and seating. The floor is made of detailed mosaic tile. At the end of the ceremony, mourners are led out through another door to take a different path back. This path includes a natural dip to help them gradually return to their lives after the service.
About 100,000 people are buried in Skogskyrkogården. Most of the burials are located in the forested areas with small and simple headstones laid out in rows and very few footpaths in between. There aren’t any grand monuments here, only simple headstones, indicators of the end of our lives as the great equalizer. There are sections for different denominations. A result of the tall trees, light and shadow play, finding each other among the stones. The tall tree trunks stand as constant reminders of the passage of time and generations. The juxtaposition of the long life of these trees and the shorter lives of those buried here brings perspective, another composition of the relationship between nature and man.
Asplund passed away in October of 1940, which was just after he finished the Woodland Crematorium and the three chapels. His own funeral was the first one in the chapel he designed and built. In his design Asplund included a mechanical screen wall which divides the interior of the crematorium and the outdoor woodland. The screen was lowered, bringing these opposite elements of the natural and man-made together, during his funeral service. He is buried just beside the Chapel of Faith with a plaque which contains the epitaph, “His work lives.” Lewerentz is buried in an unmarked grave (according to his wishes) in Malmö Eastern Cemetery, another cemetery that he designed.
Their work does live on. By their use of space and combination of natural, artistic, and architectural elements, Asplund and Lewerentz began an entirely new ideal for a cemetery. A cemetery as an experience for the living and the dead. One which through the use of opposites supports mourning and healing and creates space for contemplation on life and death.