Skogskyrkogården: an Architectural Wonder where the Beauty of Life and Death Meet

On my way to Stockholm in 2016, a friend asked me via Messenger to pass by Skogskyrkogården, especially since he knew my sort of interest with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“Skogsky what?” I asked.

“Thought you were a WHS fanatic? Really, you know nothing about Skogskykogården?” he quipped.

I googled (thanks to an easy access to information).

A photograph that emerged from my search engine was a row of early 1900’s tombstones. I was expecting a botanical garden of some sort – especially with the letters g-a-(though more of an å)-r-d-e-n in it.

One of the many graveyards in Skogskykogården (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

It was a garden.

But it was also a cemetery.

A cemetery elevated to the status of a WHS is not unusual. The UNESCO has listed more than 50 cemeteries as WHS I think. Some are actual cemeteries or burial sites (resting place of historical figures) such as the Abu Mena in Egypt (though in danger of being delisted) and the Medieval tombstones at Stećci (Transnational: Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia) while others are part of inscribed complexes such as those in the Old City of Jerusalem (Israel) and St. Peter’s Cemetery and St. Sebastian’s cemetery in Salzburg (Austria). I have visited the tombs of the Nguyen Emperors in Hue, Vietnam. These are also WHS. In China, the tombs of the emperors during the Ming Dynasty in Beijing are also inscribed as WHS. 

A landscaped graveyard (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Skogskyrkogården is relatively a modern cemetery. And this is somehow unusual because most cemeteries listed as WHS are dated as far as the time of the Ancient Pharaohs to the high Medieval Period.

A sculpture-like design on the main entrance of Skogskykogården (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Compared to other WHS, Skogskyrkogården does not have a number of popular interments. But this does not necessarily mean no popular figures are buried in the site. In relation, the Norra begravningsplatsen in North Stockholm has a number of popular figures compared to Skogskyrkogården. The final resting places of actress Ingrid Bergman, playwright August Strindberg, Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel, Nobel Peace Prize awardee Klas Pontus Arnoldson, for example, are in Norra.

The popular interments at Skogskyrkogården include actress Greta Garbo and poet Marie Under. Most recently DJ Tim Bergling, popularly known as Avicii was laid to his final resting place in this WHS in June 2018.

Nonetheless, there is definitely something special in this cemetery. I have not seen any cemetery where the developers/landscape artists and architects used the natural landscape to create an extraordinary environment of tranquil beauty leaving a profound sense of place for visitors.

UNESCO Marker at the Main Entrance of Skogskykogården (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In 1994, Skogskyrkogården was selected for its outstanding universal value via criteria (ii) and (iv). As a synthesis, the UNESCO writes Skogskyrkogården is an outstanding example of the successful application of the 20th-century concept of architecture wholly integrated into its environment: the chapels and other buildings there would lose much of their meaning if isolated from the landscape for which they were conceived.

Skogskykogården Metro Station (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Going to the site is easy. It is very accessible via Stockholm Metro (Stockholms Tunnelbana). From the popular tourist destination of Gamla Stan, it’s 8 stations away going to Farstra Strand (Train to T18). In this metro-line, Skogskyrkogården is a metro station. From the station, the main entrance is just a few yards away. You will not get lost – just follow the signages leading to the site or follow the tunnel-like trellis beautified by the plants and flowers surrounding it.

The vista upon entering Skogskykogården (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

From the entrance of the cemetery, the vista is breathtaking! Not far from the main gate of the cemetery is a huge granite cross that adds beauty to the natural landscape of the place. According to several online sources (i.e. wikipedia), the granite cross was designed by Gunnar Asplund in 1939 and financed by an anonymous donor.

In addition, the cross is a symbol of the circle of life and death. Contrary to the usual association of a cross to Christian religion or Catholicism, the cross does not stand for a religion. This is due to Skogskyrkogården’s muti-ethnic character as a burial ground (which in my view adds more to its wonder and beauty).

The granite cross (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

There are other artistic marvels inside the cemetery. There’s the Almhöjden, a meditation grove that stands just to the right of the main entrance. There’s also the triangular shaped (almost pyramid-like) Visitor’s Center, which at the time of my visit was closed. A triangular-shaped chapel adjacent to the Visitor’s Center also adds to the charm of the cemetery. The graveyards sporadically spread around the area, provide testimony of life after death.

But my favorite marvel is the Woodland Crematorium with three chapels named Faith, Hope, and the Holy Cross (see featured image above).

One of the doors designed by Hjort (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Bror Hjort was commissioned to decorate the chapel doors with bas-reliefs. In the Chapel of the Holy Cross’s portico stands a sculpture titled “Resurrection” by John Lundqvist who was also commissioned to produce the gilded figure of Christ on the crucifix inside the chapel. There’s also a large fresco inside the chapel titled “Life—Death—Life” created by Sven Xet Erixson.

The “Resurrection” by John Lundqvist caption (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Otte Sköld was responsible for the beautiful decorations of marble mosaic at the Chapel of Hope. He also created the altar crucifix. Ivar Johnsson was the artist behind various decors at the Chapel of Faith, particularly the altar crucifix.

I thought I was a little fortunate the day I visited the cemetery. There were only a handful of visitors. The beautiful cultural landscape is very inviting for meditation and contemplation. Even for a very short period, I felt I was one with nature.

I grew up in a very religious community. I was always told by my elders that the voice of God is in the silence of one’s heart. I believe I heard God’s voice when I was traversing the amazing works of Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz that is the Skogskyrkogården.

For more information about the history of the Skogskyrkogården, please click here.

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