Spooky Architecture: Cemeteries to Welcome the Living


Cemeteries have a compelling history, transforming from unsanitary resting places to picturesque parks, before settling into plain, landscaped lawns, losing not a few bones along the way in the move. Knowing this, we may never look at those subterranean skeleton decorations in quite in the same way again.  

Our Tuesday post “Spooky Architecture: Cities of the Living, Parks of the Dead” explored the intertwining history of cemeteries and public parks. Today we propose a better way to approach cemeteries here in Chicago. Happy Halloween!


As quintessential as the American cemetery has become to Halloween, it actually may not be the most elegant solution for dealing with our dearly departed ones, especially in its current common form.  Cemeteries take up a lot of single-purposed space—typically behind a guardhouse and 10’ walls—and are smothered in irrigated turf lawns.  The cemetery of uniformly sized-headstones on flat ground represents a recent paradigm shift, bowing to the mechanization of cemetery care rather than any aesthetic or human consideration.

Mt Auburn Diagram 

Vault burials, a standard practice in American funerals typically involve embalming the body, which involves large amounts of the preservative formaldehyde, a declared carcinogen. Embalming started around the Civil War, when bodies needed to be preserved for transportation home, but in local cases, the process is completely optional. In an Oct. 08 interview with Fresh Air, Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and advocate for natural burial, told host Terry Gross “my personal opinion is that we should be moving towards not embalming unless it’s absolutely necessary because it is a chemical process and it can be an expensive process for the family.” As with any ecosystem “what goes around, comes back around” and Formaldehyde in the ground means it eventually trickles into our drinking water.

The modern perpetual care cemetery is neither pleasant to roam like Mount Auburn; stunning or historically significant like Humayun’s Tomb, efficient like the Catacombs; nor is it an especially brilliant or sustainable use of space in an urban environment.


Courtesy of Eternalreefs.com
Courtesy of Eternalreefs.com

These days ideas about how to store and memorialize human remains are changing (sometimes drastically).  In Sweden, you can get composted. The Swedes siphon all the liquids from a corpse, freeze dry it, and shatter it, making some lovely fodder for your spring Begonias. You can also be transformed into an everyday object—like a record or a box of 240 pencils—causing us to wax philosophical about where the line is drawn between inanimate object and a formerly-animate object. You can also be compressed into a diamond…or become a habitat for feeding fish in the form of an eternal reef.

These ideas are interesting, but we don’t think that the traditional burial will ever go the way of the dodo.  An earth-bound burial  is customary for reasons both philosophical, cultural, and religious for thousands of years; it provides people a tangible ritual to help them acknowledge the ephemeral nature of life.


In that vein, a group of land conservationists have combined environmental interests with the age old practice of returning people to the soil. Conservation burial grounds, as they are officially known, are essentially a cross between a cemetery and a nature preserve, combining land, wildlife and plant stewardship with a functional and vivacious space to both inter the dead and commune with nature.


Freddie Johnson, former fitness and health professional, founded the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, FL, with a few dedicated friends in 2010 after feeling frustrated with his own death care options. Johnson, who harbored a lifelong passion for land conservation felt that the usual options available to Americans—vault burial or cremation—caused harm to the environment and truncated the grieving process by separating death care from the family in mourning.

Conservation burial grounds are unique in that they must be contiguous with an already existing land trust, essentially packaging on additional land for burial purposes that will also receive protection from corporate development. Conservation burial grounds must propose a plan to care for plants and animals so as not to make a net negative impact. In order to do this effectively, it is legally required for the groundskeepers to conduct a biological evaluation on geology, hydrology, soils, and topography, and on both existing and potential vegetation and wildlife. It must be ensured that native species of plant and animal life will be able to be either introduced or continue to exist when the burial ground is complete. Designers must also have plans for protecting rare plant species, as well as minimizing erosion, among other precautions. Instead of vaults, many of the deceased are buried in the ground, sans covering. Prairie Creek does allow vaults, but they must be made of a biodegradable material without hazardous chemical additions.

Advocates of the Conservation burial method revive the spirit of Mount Auburn, in that the resting place of the dead becomes a place for the living to honor their loved ones, while making new memories of their own in a beautiful, natural green space. Perhaps the best element about Prairie Creek, and what truly separates it from most cemeteries we see in the city is its functionality and integration with everyday life. “What natural burial sort of brings with it, is it automatically is saving and managing a wonderful ecosystem and creating a passive recreation place for the living and it’s also silently and beautifully filtering air and water for the community,” Johnson says.

At Prairie Creek, and other conservation burial grounds,  individual plots might not be as obvious to the eye as in a traditional cemetery. The entire space becomes communal— much more like a public park—although there are trail maps indicating where the individual plots are.

When asked if this bothers people at all, Johnson remarks, “Some people hang onto that..some people have that idea that “this is my little space”, but the more they come into the cemetery they see people having picnics; bird watching; hiking…there’s an eagle flying overhead—pretty soon it all integrates to the whole place. “


For Chicago and other American cities, we propose teaming up with some nature preserves, like the North Park Village Nature Center, and transforming a portion into conservation burial grounds. Prairie grasses, like the ones maintained at Winnemac Park, would especially lend themselves to this practice; unlike dense forests, there would be visibility and ease of navigation late at night.

nature center

In addition to conservation cemeteries, we can take cues from the Catacombs, and gorgeous structures like Humayun’s Tomb;  a monument to the dead can become a space that is both interactive and integrated in daily life, serving as a record and learning tool for history, art and design, while also honoring those interred there. 

Memorial Gardens, like the one in Cocoran, MN offer display plaques, benches and bricks the bereaved can dedicate to loved ones. Adjacent garden space allows for families to scatter ashes among gardens and favorite flowers. 

The dead can also be remembered, individually or in groups with cenotaph,tombs without any remains in them, interspersed with urban areas. This practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians.  They can be anything from simple, like the Hawthorn’s Memorial, to elaborate, like the Bada Bagh Cenotaph. Cenotaph and monuments alike offer tidbits of tranquility and thoughtfulness that fold in seamlessly with the rhythm of routine, yet add nuanced character to any cityscape. Downtown Chicago has a bevy of nooks and crannies which make  perfect candidates for these markers. 

Although the Mt. Auburn style park-cemetery design is no longer with us (pun intended), we appreciate the sentiment: integration into everyday life by being an additional green space in which to walk, think, reflect and keep memories of our loved ones interwoven into our daily lives. We can learn from the architecture and urban planning of burial in the past, to make the cemetery something that contributes to and evolves with the living, while honoring our memories of the dead.


As weird as it sounds today, public parks are the grandchildren of rural cemeteries. Both reflect an egalitarian attitude and the notion that green space deeply benefits cities, and that those benefits shouldn’t be restricted to the upper class. Conservation cemeteries like Prairie Creek restore this attitude, not just in the sense that they promote land stewardship for access by all, but in that they actively seek to care for our public goods, things that should be an inalienable  right no matter your annual income, like clean air, water, and dirt in which to grow our food.

Maybe cemeteries don’t have to be so spooky after all.

Don’t worry, Halloween, we’ll always have candy corn.