Cemeteries: A Nuanced Look at Dead and Dying Spaces

Back in the days, I sometimes walked with my sister through a specific route to my uncle’s so that we could join our cousins to go to school. The route was a narrow alleyway where people lived on one side and the other side was a big cemetery, which was isolated from the outside world by bricked walls.

I have always been scared of spirits but at the time I still chose the route because it was much faster and less crowded. Honestly the memories of those days have long faded away, yet I still have since wondered how people dared to live right next to a cemetery. How do they feel about their living environment? What do they see at night? Would they say ghosts are real?

With that little note of the psychological state of mine, no one – including myself – would think that I would ever visit a cemetery for a recreational stroll. But I did. And on a frequent basis.

And it was even one of my hobbies during my time in Denmark – to stroll around and ponder upon the graves of the departed.

Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen is a famous attraction of the city – mostly because the famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen rests there, in addition to a long roster of Danish important figures (as well as some infamous gang members). People go there to enjoy sunlight and solitude, to date, picnic, read a book, jog, and bike through a street that divides the cemetery (which leads to Jægersborggade, one of my favorite Nørrebro corners). Things of course happen in a very quiet and respectful manner, but they show that in Assistens Cemetery, life and death coexist. Isn’t that fascinating?

Now that I think of it, I have only seen a similar case of public life in cemetery in Huế – a city in central Vietnam that was home to our last royal dynasty. Because I saw such a sight through a car window, my reaction only reached to the “Why?” stage. (and honestly I even thought that someone should do something about that). I thought it would be so inappropriate to enjoy life in the presence of death. Simultaneously, I also thought that cemeteries were physically, psychologically, and (arguably) spiritually dangerous places.

But if city planning is for the people, then shouldn’t it take an active role in spaces of the dead as much as in spaces of the living? How should cityscapes embrace such an inevitable process of life?

I explored these thoughts when writing the final paper for the Danish Architecture and Urban Design class and realized that death-scapes are both intimate and alienating spaces. Even though we – as modern human beings –  see a lot of violence and killings through media and games, in reality the natural state of death in life has been physically estranged and psychologically avoided.

That leads me to the connection with alleyways, even though they are supposedly so unrelated to each other. But, just like cemeteries generally indicate dead spaces, alleyways in HCMC are urban entities struggling to survive the processes of modernization and urbanization. A visit to an alleyway neighborhood always leads to a realization of a different Sai Gon behind those skylines in the city center and rising districts (ex: 2 and 7). A realization that we have deep and seriously outright inequality in our society.

If Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen demonstrates that we can mindfully bring life to a seemingly dead space, shouldn’t that mean a lifeful transformation can take place at alleyways as well?

In other words, how would we envision a modern and human-centered alleyway neighborhood?

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