It was a beautiful day in Stockholm when we decided to visit Skogskyrkogården, the Woodland Cemetery located just a little South of the city. It may seems like a weird choice of ‘attraction’ to purposely go to a cemetery, for no other reason than to stroll through. Especially on a sunny day, in an amazing city like Stockholm! So why go there? Well, I guess I can always say that UNESCO made me do it! OK, OK, not really, but you’ve seen my BID list, so you understand.
There is something familiar about arriving in Skogskyrkogården. If you’ve been to a cemetery in the UK or the US, you may feel like you are entering known territories and wonder what is so special about this one. Read on and you will soon realize that there is nothing common about this place…
The creation of Skogskyrkogården
At the beginning of the 20th century, an international architecture competition was launched to find the best architects for such a projet. This information alone was a huge surprise to me! Who would have thought of an architecture competition for something like a cemetery?! WWII had just started, so most of the 53 entries were from Swedish architects.
Before visiting Skogskyrkogården, I actually had never even realized that architects were needed for cemeteries. I kind of thoughts that it was just a matter of creating alleys and spaces to put tombs in between and that they grew organically. What is there to design? OK the chapels but that’s not a whole lot.
Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz proved I was so wrong.
Lewerentz handled much of the landscaping and Asplund most of the buildings like the Woodland Crematorium. The apparent neoclassicism design of some the chapels mixes with the newest trend at the time: functionalism. As a non architect, I would even describe the style as minimalist. As you will see in the below description of the Woodland Crematorium, the attention to details is impressive and also proves functionalism isn’t exclusive of aesthetic design.
Skogskyrkogården creation took a while as the competition was organized in 1914 and the Woodland Crematorium was completed in 1940.
The visit of Skogskyrkogården
Skogskyrkogården was designed so nature and architecture would blend seamlessly. No huge monuments disrupt the view. Instead the chapels are integrated in the landscape and appear in the distance as you walk through the large alleys. The sun shimmers through the trees and dances between the tombstones. The smell of freshly cut grass mixes with the smell of the pine trees. Skogskyrkogården feels like a peaceful, green heaven that anyone would want to call its last resting place.
Above: The Seven Springs Way leading to the Chapel of Resurrection designed by Sigurd Lewerentz and pictured below
Spotlight on the Woodland Crematorium
As you enter the Woodland Crematorium and in particular the Chapel of the Holy Cross, you feel in peace. There is something about the space, the arrangement, the symmetry of the design. The sun fills the space softly and adds to the reflective atmosphere. The gentle slop, the curves, the columns, everything was designed to lead your gaze to the center. The coffin of your dear departed would be lying there, on the catafalque. Yet, you would be looking up to the mosaic behind and could only imagine them on their last voyage, led into the light.
Life – Death – Life mosaic by Sven Xet Erixson
Asplund paid an incredible attention to details when designing the Woodland Crematorium. You can read more on the official website linked below. What mesmerized me are the smallest most ingenious ones, like the little hooks that hide into the floor and can be raised-up, to hang flowers. The way candles can be used. The way you enter the Chapel by a small door and exit by the huge door… yes kind of like in a cathedral but with an incredible view!
Hat hooks and bible stands at the Chapel of the Holy Cross
OK this last picture is super weird to add! But I couldn’t resist!! This is a vintage hand dryer you can find in the toilets. It is actionned by a foot pedal and still works like a charm. The ventilation of the toilet is also pure genius as it hides in the double layer of the door. If I ever find a drawing of the design, I will add.
The symbol of resurrection
What is absolutely fascinating is that Asplund used the symbol of resurrection in everything. As you already know if you read my post on the Speyer Cathedral, numbers have a specific meaning and 8 is the symbol for resurrection and new beginnings (at least in the Bible).
The Chapel of the Holy Cross has 8 frontal columns. The column shafts are composed of 8 elements. There are 8 rows of seats… Look closely when you visit and you will start to notice.
Resurrection by John Lundqvist
Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skogskyrkogården is definitively off the beaten path. It isn’t hard to access by car or public transport but it still feels quite out of the city. Visiting a cemetery isn’t high on most people wish list anyway, so you won’t see too many tourists around.
As mentionnes above, Skogskyrkogården may look like any other cemetery but if you pay attention to details, you will realize it is far more than that. If you like architecture, well thought-out design and UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Woodland Cemetery should make it, on your destination list!
The Technical bits
The official website: skogskyrkogarden.stockholm.se
Free guided tours are organized on Sundays. We did get a very special and private tour and I felt blessed and sooo thankful!
Private tours can be arrange in various languages. There is also a pdf guide available on the official website.
Do remember Skogskyrkogården is first and foremost is a multi-ethnic cemetery. Be mindful of ceremonies and grieving visitors.
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