Urban cemeteries as public spaces: comparison of the Norwegian and Russian case studies

Nordre cemetery in Oslo
Contemporary cemeteries are intriguing examples of “in-between” places with no clear cut between public and private, civic and personal.
Vćr Frelsers cemetery in Oslo

Planners and policy makers often see urban cemeteries as utilitarian burial grounds. However, evidence from different countries demonstrate that their role is more complex. The findings of a Norwegian research projects “Green Urban Spaces – the role of the cemetery in multicultural and interreligious urban contexts” (2014-2017) show that the cemeteries in Oslo are actively used for recreation and perceived by many of their users as green places of restoration. Is such cemetery multifunctionality just a Norwegian phenomenon or we can find similarities in other cultures?

Østre cemetery in OsloFor the comparison, this paper brings empirical evidences from Vvedenskoe cemetery (opened in 1771) in the Russian capital in Moscow. The study partly replicates the above-mentioned Norwegian study adapted to the context of Moscow and employs systematic observations of people’s activities, participant observations and interviews with cemetery visitors. Among many other cemeteries in Moscow, I chose Vvedenskoe cemetery for this study because of its close proximity to housing areas, physical layout with two entrances and comparatively wide alleys and mature vegetation.

Vvedenskoe cemetery in Moscow

Vvedenskoe cemetery in MoscowThe results show that people come to Vvedenskoe cemetery not only to visit their relatives’ graves, although it is the main activity there and more common comparing to the Norwegian case. Thanks to the big amount of heritage graves and special spiritual atmosphere Vvedenskoe cemetery is an attractive place for excursions, especially focused on arts and history. For many of the interviewees this cemetery was included into their everyday life as a place for strolling and reflections, which is similar to the findings from Oslo. Another important aspect for the visitors is the greenery of Vvedenskoe cemetery, which provides an opportunity of the contact with nature for the local residents. The Norwegian researchers had similar observations in case of Oslo. While the range and frequency of recreational activities in Vvedenskoe cemetery is lower than in the studied cemeteries in Norway, the findings clearly show that its role in the city is not limited to the utilitarian functions of a burial ground.

So far academic research of the role of urban cemeteries was focused on Northern Europe and North America and cross-cultural comparative cemetery research almost does not exist, except very few examples. In times of globalisation, cemeteries are among very small number of urban places, which are so culturally and contextually dependent and vary greatly from country to country. On the contrary, to many comparative studies in other fields, which aim to find generalised knowledge and best practices, comparative cemetery research cannot have the same goal because of the importance of the local context. However, I believe that it can give deeper and more nuanced understanding of a cemetery as a phenomenon and its potential. Policymakers and practitioners around the world are starting to acknowledge cemeteries’ multifunctional potential which is especially relevant for fast growing cities with increasing demand for green spaces, such as Oslo and Copenhagen. 

About the author

Pavel Grabalov is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Landscape and Society of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). He holds a Master’s degree in Urban Studies from Malmö University (2017) and has interests in urban planning and people-environment interaction. His current PhD project focuses on the role of cemeteries in contemporary densified cities. Pavel’s research aims to build new interdisciplinary knowledge on urban cemeteries as a special type of public spaces, using case studies from Scandinavian and Russian cultural contexts.

The above article has been prepared for the ASCE Conference 2019 in Ghent, Belgium. The article-related presentation is available HERE.

You can read more about Pavel Grabalov’s academic research on new cemetery policies in Oslo and Copenhagen in: Pavel Grabalov, Helena Nordh, “’Philosophical park’: Cemeteries in the Scandinavian urban context”, Social Studies, Vol. 17:1, https://journals.muni.cz/socialni_studia/article/view/13559