Ashes to Arches, Dust to Dormers

by Sid Feddema

We humans are many things, but humble isn’t one of them. Even in death we demand acknowledgement of our importance, despite the fact that we won’t be there to enjoy it. This vanity doesn’t come cheap, either. The funeral industry is an estimated $20.7-billion per year business in the U.S. alone, and the average funeral will cost either the dead or their families 8-10k. Maybe that money would be better spent on a vacation while you’re still kicking? There’s also the environmental toll: each year more than 800,000 gallons of toxic formaldehyde enter the ground during burial services in the U.S., and the space, water, and fertilizer required to keep the grounds green only add to the problem. 

But trends are changing. Cremation is an increasingly popular option, and it offers a cheaper, cleaner way to pay tribute to our dearly departed. It’s a humbler move than, say, building a pyramid 
to commemorate your greatness, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to completely give up the grandeur. Increasingly, the crematoriums themselves have become temples in their own right: grand, beautiful, architecturally ambitious spaces that offer a place to reflect and pay tribute to lost loved ones. Goodbye Architecture: The Architecture of Crematoria in Europe, a new book from NAI010 publishers, presents a gorgeous survey of this emerging phenomenon, offering a photographic tour of some of Europe’s most remarkable crematoriums along with extensive illustrations and analysis. 

The project was initiated by architects and authors Vincent Valentijn and Kim Verhoeven from architecture firm Studio Pekka. “From a day-to-day basis we are mostly occupied with designing and engineering, but we also think it is necessary to not take things for granted, to stay inquisitive, and to keep researching and sharing what we find as widely as we possibly can,” Valentijn says. “We focus on projects with social relevance, since we believe that with everything we do, we make a choice for the future. In the case of the book and crematoria, it seems that how a society handles death can show you a lot about what people value in life.” If the book is any indication of where we’re headed, it seems that we’ll find a way to stay (tastefully) ostentatious after death, even as we move towards more modest farewells.