Like its famous public library, Stockholm’s cemetery, Skogskyrkogården, is an icon of modern architecture. Based on a winning competition entry by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, it was completed between 1917 and 1940 and still serves the city. On the afternoon I visited people were gathering outside one of the chapels for a service. The crematorium, chapels, and gardens at Skogskyrkogården are revered by architecture teachers and students everywhere because they are built so simply and finely. This is certainly true. Each element — roof, paving, door, window — has been reduced to essentials. A door is simply a flush panel in the wall. A fence is simply a stone wall with a metal coping. A patio is simply a row of stone tiles set in the lawn. Yet these structures aren’t naive; they’re precise, elegant and resonant.
What might be even more remarkable than the refinement in the construction is the way that the dead are present here. Do Scandinavians have a more holistic understanding of death than Americans do? Right at the center of the cemetery there’s a clearing with a meditation garden built on a rise that resembles the sixth century burial mounds in Uppsala. As one moves through the chapels this formation is never out of sight. There are over 90,000 graves here, most buried with simple, stone markers within the groves of high pine trees that make up most of the grounds. They lie low, between the trunks, just barely visible. The city cab driver who accompanied us to and through the grounds told us, with perfect equanimity, that his own mother and father were buried there. One of my companions responded, “The dead must feel at peace here.” I concur.