After a five-minute train ride out of the city, we’re met with a harsh chill as we step out onto the platform and into the quiet district of Enskededalen. Surrounded by concrete and greenery, it’s a stark contrast to the inner city of Stockholm that sits in the distance.
It’s 6pm. A grey sky hangs over our heads, spitting raindrops down on us at random. During the Stockholm summer, the sun doesn’t set till near midnight, and even then the sky doesn’t turn black like it does at home – just a dark greyish-blue light washing over silhouettes, like the sun never really sleeps. It’s hiding just below the hills, pretending.
My eyelids grow heavy; they’re closed a little longer each time I blink. Jet lagged from a twenty hour flight, our group of students follows the tour guide (an enthusiastic middle-aged woman) along a road to a cemetery called Skogskyrkogården (forest cemetery, or The Woodland Cemetery).
A rolling wave of grass paints the hills green up to the horizon, where it meets a small gathering of trees standing against the sky. A grey gravel path leads up to a lookout with a few stone benches amongst the trees. The stairs that lead up to it become smaller as they go along, designed so that the walk doesn’t become tiring. They call the lookout ‘Almhöjden’: an area for meditation and peace where people go to sit and enjoy the serenity before groups of whispering tourists disrupt the silence.
From there you can look across the open green paddock, a couple of cream-coloured buildings and a tall granite cross standing at the other side, breaking up the almost-bare picture of nature. Look further beyond, and you see the woods. A forest of brown and green drawing a line where living nature collides with death. The graves are hidden, lined up in rows like concrete soldiers among the trees. Each of them are similar in size, and most are similar in shape – some graves are marked by a small tombstone, some by a cross, others are marked by a plaque in the ground. There are no overwhelming tombs that tower over the others – the idea is that death is the great equaliser. In death, we are one and the same.
On some of the graves, the word ‘Fred’ is engraved. Swedish for ‘Peace’.
Shutting my eyes and listening to the nothingness, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful resting place.
The tour guide tells us that mourners are not allowed to decorate the graves here. Each buried person should not be favoured over another. Then she draws our attention to a grave decorated with balloons, flowers, and teddy bears.
‘Sometimes they allow the graves to be decorated for a short period of time. That was a particularly recent and tragic case,’ the guide said. ‘She was very young.’
On one of the balloons, a child had written a message in Swedish: ‘Happy 9th birthday Therese’.
Look up, and the roof of leaves is dizzying. The tops of the trees stretch towards the clouds, away from the dead.
Stockholm City Council held a competition in 1915 to design a cemetery, open to anyone who had a passion for architecture. The challenge was to utilise the hundred hectares of unused area, without altering the natural contours of the landscape, and create a cemetery that blends the greenery with graveyards and chapels. The tour guide tells us that there were many submissions that were expensive and complex, filling the open areas with architecture and attractions. They focussed on buildings and statues rather than the beauty of the landscape that was provided for them. The winning design was submitted by two thirty year old architects; Gunnar Asplund, who had a taste for minimalism and went on to design many famous buildings, including one of his other great works, the Stockholm City Library, and Sigurd Lewerentz, whose strange and wonderful designs eventually included Malmo Opera and Music Theatre, as well as the Stockholm International Exhibition, which he also designed with Asplund. The Woodland Cemetery was a breakthrough for both of the architects, leading them to becoming two of the most internationally recognised and celebrated architects in Sweden’s history.
Their collaborative design used the woodlands and the site’s bareness; Asplund’s designs are simple and minimalistic, entwining the cemetery with nature, whilst Lewerentz’s designs are bizarre and provocative, using eery images and themes to evoke emotion in visitors. The forest forms part of the cemetery’s architecture, as if it, too, was designed. The landscape and forestation provides the beauty, and the cemetery is designed around it.
Our guide tells us the idea is that life goes on around us. So much life surrounds the dead. Much of the plants, the trees, and the nature here will live on a long time after we die. Trees and grass continue to grow above bodies laying six feet below the ground.
When you’re dead, buried, and your grave stands the same as the others around you, life will go on.
While Sigurd Lewerentz moved on to focus on other projects, Gunnar Asplund returned to Skogskyrkogården, designing new buildings and features to adapt the cemetery to changing times and booming popularity, right up until his death in 1940.
Asplund’s body rests near the main chapel. Like the others, his grave is simple and almost bare, reflecting his minimalist style. A memorial stone sits against a wall.
The inscription reads his name, and a quote: ‘His work lives on.’
There are some parts of the Woodland Cemetery that seem to deliberately comfort you, where benches are designed with a kink in the middle, so that when you sit among the graves you face the other visitors around you. It lets you know that there are others here in your time of mourning, experiencing the same. You are not alone. Other parts of the cemetery bask in their own beauty; the wide open areas, the forest where the sun gleams in between the trees, the lake that boasts with the reflection of the picturesque Holy Cross Chapel.
Then there are the parts of Skogskyrkogården that seem to taunt you, embracing death in all its tragic glory.
On the way to the Woodland Chapel, we come to a gate. A young man and a woman come walking through it arm-in-arm. They look up and see us: a large group of tourists, journals and pens in our hands. The man gives a shy wave and says, ‘Hej’: the Swedish greeting, sounding very similar to the English ‘hey’. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re here to mourn the passing of a loved one, or if they were also temporary visitors, here for the beauty and the experience.
Above the gate is an engraved picture of a person being lifted into the sky; an angel. He’s saying something to the person pictured on the ground below.
He warns, ‘Today, me. Tomorrow, you.’
A poetic taunt, like a reminder from the dead to the living. You may mourn my death now, but one day people will mourn yours.
It’s an introduction to the Woodland Chapel. It is perhaps the controversial part of the cemetery, reminding us of the haunting reality and inevitability of our deaths. It forces us to confront it, to think of everything around us – the graves, the chapels – in terms of ourselves. It encourages us to think of ourselves in place of the recently departed.
As we walk, in between the trees we see a building with white walls and a black roof, upon which sits a small figure, glittering gold.
The chapel is a small, modest building, hidden like a secret in the woods. It’s wide, with a triangular roof that juts out far from the entrance, hanging over your head like a feeling of doom as you walk in. Above the entrance, sitting on the edge of the building’s roof, is a small angel. She is the only decoration; a golden mini-statue against a dark roof.
According to the tour guide, it is The Angel of Death. Looking down at us, wings spread, she welcomes us with her arms held out wide. The tour guide tells us that, at the time of the cemetery’s construction, the inclusion of the angel was debated and highly controversial. It is difficult to tell whether it would be more acceptable then or now. Has an idea like this become more politically correct? I imagine myself here, after the death of a family member, seeing The Angel of Death beckoning.
Before opening the door to the chapel, the tour guide stops and draws our attention to the lock – a small but frightening skull. To unlock the door, she inserts the key into the skull’s eye where the lock sits and turns it. It feels like yet another taunt. Death surrounds us, inescapable, as we walk into the chapel.
The interior is tiny; our group of thirty was enough to make the building feel full. Despite the square look of the building from the outside, inside the chapel was a dome. A glass roof let natural light shine in, but not enough to stop the room from being bleakly dim. We sat in the chairs which were arranged opposite each other in a curved fashion, like parentheses. We sat around the elevated space where the coffin would normally be. None of the seats were directed towards the priest. They were all arranged so that, in times of mourning, you would look across and see the faces of other loved ones. In the foreground would be the coffin.
Below the coffin is the burial vault, sinking below the floor like a root cellar. We are told that the lowering of the coffin into the vault is a symbol of the dead becoming one with the earth.
At one stage in the overseas trip, we had to cross the border from Denmark back to Sweden. We stopped at a Burger King, and having fallen asleep on the bus, I had no idea which country we were in. But as soon as the girl behind the counter talked to me, I knew which country it was. Not because of the language, or the accent, or the currency, but because of the girl. All smiles and manners. We were back in Sweden.
You get used to the joy and politeness of the people in Sweden. You notice your mood lifting with each encounter. A cheerful ‘hej hej!’ when you walk into a souvenir shop has the ability to turn your day around. There’s a sense of peacefulness. Harmony.
In some ways, Skogskyrkogården seems completely separate from the world around it. But in some ways, it doesn’t.
When you walk through the gates, you still feel Sweden’s sense of harmony. The country’s togetherness spills over into the cemetery, and somewhere among the graves you can find comfort. Somewhere among the dead, there are smiles and manners.
The approximately 100,000 graves in the cemetery are split into sections according to the religion of the deceased; the Christian section is the largest, while there are also sections for Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox graves, among others, and while the sections are separate, the paths to each section intersect and overlap, momentarily bringing the visitors together on their respective journeys.
Around the corner from the main chapel near the entrance, before you reach the woods, there are cement tiles in the grass. The stepping stones form a path to a long, red flower bed stretching across at the end. A crimson gravestone stands tall in the middle. Written on the grave in gold cursive letters, a signature, is the name ‘Greta Garbo’.
An actress, an icon, a national treasure. You get off the plane in Sweden, you see Greta Garbo on the walls. You shop at a convenience store, you see Greta on DVD covers set aside on a special stand dedicated to the best talent the country has to offer, along with ABBA and Ingrid Bergman. You see clips of her in silent films, the subtle face expressions and the themes of loneliness and independence in her roles. She gave few interviews, not caring for the media. Like the characters in her films, she preferred to be alone.
She had once said, a couple of years before she passed away in 1990, and after over a decade of avoiding her home country for her hatred of the press, ‘I want to go home to Sweden. I want to lie in Swedish soil.’
In 1999, nine years after her death, it had finally been decided where her ashes would be buried. She would go back home to Sweden, where she would rest in Skogskyrkogården. The ceremony in Woodland Chapel was televised throughout Sweden.
Now, reduced to ash, she’s buried in the earth beneath our feet, her legacy immortalised in silent films and a golden signature.
We come to Seven Springs Way, a gravel path nearly kilometre long lined by trees and leading to the Chapel of Resurrection. The path is like a hallway; the woods like walls on each side. The chapel stands tall at the end of the hallway, giving us a sense of foreboding.
The inevitable destination.
Thirty university students, two tutors and a tour guide walk, arms crossed, shoulders hunched, tensing their muscles to try and prevent the chill.
The tour guide points at the trees. We’re walking past the birches. Further up the corridor would be the pines, and then as we reach the end we would walk past the spruces. The colour of the different types of trees meant that the path would become darker and darker as we go along, and mourners’ moods would shift, becoming more melancholy with the change in light before reaching the end; the Chapel of Resurrection.
When the Woodland Chapel was discovered to be too small, the Chapel of Resurrection was built. It stands, magnificently towering at the end of the kilometre long path. We’re dwarfed by the monstrous columns that hold the portico before the entrance. When inside, we’re met with an inexplicably uneasy feeling. The design of the rectangular interior is strange, like being inside Sigurd Lewerentz’s mind.
The pattern of the mosaic tiled floor resembles water; lines like waves under our feet. An ambiguous symbol. It could symbolise the cleansing of the spirit before it is handed over, or it could simply be an aesthetic choice. This seems to be one of the few things that the tour guide’s mind is unclear about.
The chairs are situated in two groups, sitting apart from each other, facing the front and organised into diagonal rows. The coffin sits solitary in front of the onlookers, the podium where the priest would stand in the background. The room is lit by lights hanging from the ceiling, but this is not the only light.
The only window in the room stands tall on the wall near the front of the chapel. The coffin is bathed in its natural light streaming through the glass, as if heaven itself were shining down upon the deceased.
There is an unevenness about the room; the single window on one side throws off the symmetry, only serving to make it feel even more uncomfortable. The chapel is like another world; you step into the unfamiliar, a skewed reflection of reality where the passing of life is celebrated.
When we leave the Chapel of Resurrection, we exit through a different door from the one through which we came in. Once again, like so many other aspects of the cemetery’s design, this is a symbol.
It is the end of the journey.
If we went back the way we came in, we would only re-live the path. Once we leave the Chapel of Resurrection, we go back to our lives, separate from today’s experience, from death, from Skogskyrkogården. We go in one way, and come out another.
As I walk back with the group, hood on my head, my face buried into the collar of my jacket to shield it from the cold, I feel I’ve come face to face with the afterlife. The idea of death has new meaning, with new images attached.
We spot a deer in between the trees, eating the grass. It looks up and sees us. It seems at home amongst the nature; gravestones and all.
A cemetery bathed in seemingly endless light. A silent world of its own, separated from the outside.
It’s 10pm. A grey sky looks down at The Woodland Cemetery.
By: Josh Baird