The Romantic Naturalism of Sweden’s Woodland Cemetery

by J-Mirabelli
cemetery with pine trees

The Woodland Cemetery in Sweden was created as part of a competition and was built in an old gravel pit filled with towering pines.

The creation of modernist architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz at Skogskyrkogarden in Stockholm, Sweden gave birth to a new form of cemetery that has influenced cemetery design throughout the world. It is a perfect example of cultural landscape and buildings conceived as a whole. The design blends landscape and natural vegetation with architectural features to create an environment of tranquility that is an ideal setting for a cemetery. A subtle romantic naturalism is key to the impact of the place: the mingling of forest and woodland, buildings and graves.

In 1912 an international architectural competition was organized to create the new cemetery in an old sand and gravel pit covered with pine trees. Conditions of the contest were simple: the basic plan must not sacrifice the natural contours of the existing landscape; the design must be dignified; details should contribute to an attractive artistic impression; and the natural formation of the existing gravel pits should be used as much as possible to form valleys and glens. The first prize was awarded to the two 30-year-old Swedish architects, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. Work began in 1917 and was completed by 1920.

Woodland Cemetery’s first chapel, the Woodland Chapel, was built in 1920. It is set in a grove of mature fir trees surrounded by a wall, which gives the visitor the feeling of a country church surrounded by a walled graveyard. The chapel’s black shingle roof, is raised on Tuscan columns. This gives it the appearance from a distance of a wooden pyramid emerging from the surrounding trees.

The Woodland Chapel quickly proved to be too small, so the Chapel of Resurrection and a service building were added between 1923 and 1925. The Stockholm Cemetery Board also introduced special restrictions regarding the size and form of gravestones in the new cemetery. In 1935 Asplund drew up a group of three chapels (Chapels of Faith, Hope, and the Holy Cross) and a crematorium complex. It was Gunnar Asplund’s final work of architecture and opened shortly before his passing in 1940. It was a cruel irony that the first funeral to take place at the crematorium was Asplund’s own. Asplund was buried beside the Chapel of Faith under a simple stone plaque bearing the epitaph ‘His work lives’.

The second group of chapels is designed to permit funerals to take place simultaneously. Each of the chapels has its own enclosed garden, and as a group they take full advantage of the natural landscape. The gentle slope is accentuated by the gradually descending height of the buildings to the open-air columbarium and the main gate. The largest of the chapels, Holy Cross, has a large hall in front of it and a lily pond beside it. Beyond the pond is the space for open-air ceremonies. The columbarium, with niches and graves for urns, lies to the north of the chapels.

Decorations inside the three chapels resulted from a competition held in 1937. The furniture was designed to be plain but comfortable and the limestone floors under the family pews were carved to resemble small kilims, a design that looks like a tapestry-woven carpet. They maintain the austerity that is characteristic of the entire Skogskyrkogarden complex. The huge granite cross on the lawn outside the chapels was a gift from an anonymous donor.

Asplund and Lewerentz’s cemetery design brings out a simple imagery. There are only a few footpaths through the woodland. Graves are laid out without a lot of regimentation among the natural forest. Their design sources were ancient and medieval Nordic burial archetypes and subtle use of elements from Mediterranean antiquity to enhance the Nordic experience. The architects did reshape the two old gravel pits and the layout of the area around the main chapel. The change is hidden in the surrounding forest and provides a contrast to them.

In 1994, the cemetery was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, important for both its cultural and natural heritage. A World Heritage Site can be a place, a location, an environment or an object that is uniquely present in the history of the world or humankind. It was only the second 20th century site to enter the lists – all other sites that have entered into UNESCO’s protection were much older.

The cemetery is one of the largest cemeteries in Sweden with over 100,000 graves and is the final resting place for many famous figures, including Gunnar Asplund (Woodland Cemetery architect); Alfred Nobel (founder of the Nobel Prize); and actress Greta Garbo. Each year, about 2,000 burial services are held here.

Considered one of the most important works of modernist architecture, Woodland Cemetery evokes a Nordic philosophy on nature, life, and death. The cemetery is a major tourist attraction in Stockholm, Sweden.

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