The Woodland Cemetery in Enskede was built between 1919 and 1940 by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. On a ridge overgrown with pines they created a sacred landscape with several small chapels arranged to interact with the natural surroundings. It expresses on a large scale the design aspirations that characterized Swedish architecture before and after World War II. Asplund mainly devoted himself to the buildings, with the Crematorium standing out as a central work both in his own career and in the architecture of the 1930s as a whole. Skogskyrkogården was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994 as an "outstanding example of how architecture and landscaping from our century combine to make a cemetery. This creation has had a great influence on the design of cemeteries all over the world." For Asplund, who was the main designer of the buildings, this was to be a life-long assignment that punctuated his commissions elsewhere; his work on the scheme only ended with his death 25 years later. Lewerentz’s involvement with the scheme was to end earlier, once he had built the imposing Resurrection Chapel (1921-5).
A visit to the Woodland Cemetery is a carefully delineated journey through a landscape that Colin St John Wilson has called ‘tragic and sublime’. Visitors are embraced by funnel-shaped entrance walls and progress up an incline towards the loggia of the Crematorium. Straight ahead is a grassy mound topped with the birch forest known as ‘the grove of remembrance’. These apparently natural forms in fact took many years to prepare and are a central part of the architectural work of the Cemetery. A subtle romantic naturalism is key to the impact of the place: the mingling of forest and woodland, buildings and graves.
The Woodland Chapel (1918-20)
It was the first of the Cemetery buildings designed by Asplund and positioned at the end of a woodland path which leads straight into its pillared portico, with pines and spruces rising closely around it to twice its height, Asplund always intended that this building would remain ‘modestly subordinate’ to its natural surroundings. The building’s classicism is paired with a Swedish vernacular that emphasises its roots in a traditional local culture. Inside, the building has a domed glass roof that sheds light on the area around the catafalque (the final resting point of the coffin) and makes the space unexpectedly bright and airy. Furnishings inside the chapel include candle-holders, a tray carrying earth to sprinkle over the coffin and chairs of oil-painted birch with plaited seats, all designed by Asplund. Key escutcheons on the Chapel’s gates are delicately cast skulls and ‘The Angel of Death’, a work by the prominent Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955), adorns the roof.
The Woodland Crematorium
The crematorium and its three chapels of Faith, Hope and the Holy Cross were built later, from 1935-40. These are arguably Asplund’s greatest buildings and were the last assignment before his sudden death in 1940. Asplund paid particular attention to furnishings for each building in order to give appropriate expression to the reflection and devotion of mourners and to ensure that there was no distraction, in his words, from ‘their essential meaning…the difficult moment of parting’. Each chapel had an antechamber in which the next-of-kin could sit on curved birch-root wood benches, each with a courtyard garden in its centre that intensified the light and serenity of the space and enabled three simultaneous services to be held while maintaining the privacy of each. Chapel furniture was designed to be plain but comfortable and the limestone floors under the family pews were carved to resemble small kilims. The materials chosen in each chapel were of the highest quality but gave the impression of simplicity: in the Chapel of Faith, for example, the hymn number boards were covered in suede and a pony-skin kneeler was placed below an onyx cross on the small hand-carved stone altar.
It was a cruel irony that the first funeral to take place at the crematorium was Asplund’s own. It was also the only time that the magnificent mechanical screen wall which runs the length of the back of the crematorium has been lowered to remove the division between the interior and the woodland beyond. Asplund was buried beside the Chapel of Faith under a simple stone plaque bearing the epitaph ‘His work lives’. In 1994 the Woodland Cemetery became one of the few works of twentieth-century architecture to be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.