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Funereal architecture is hard to analyze without falling into cliché. (“Is this for the dead or for the living?”) So I’ll stick to what I know: The mini-mausoleum type was dominant in the two Parisian cemeteries I visited. This is very different from the typical American graveyard—is there such a thing?—but similar to the graves of the wealthy in older graveyards (such as family graves in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery) and similar to the graves in most of the big old New Orleans cemeteries. (In New Orleans I think the prevalence of type had more to do with placing graves above-ground and less to do with building mini-mausoleums. High water tables, and what not.) 

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Some flat graves, mostly newer. The changing texture of stone, from rough to smooth, is interesting: A shift enabled by technology, but perhaps also caused by it. As sedate as we might pretend funereal architecture is, it is also a type bound up in its own styles, its own currents and rhythms. Is this discomforting to acknowledge? Does seeing stylistic changes somehow lessen the gravitas of the gravestone? Funereal architecture is interesting precisely because it is so conservative and changes, when they do build up, are slow to do so. These changes in technology call to mind translucent cast-glass headstones, which are such a radical departure from the usual granite headstones that many cemeteries refuse to allow them. These nicely illustrate the design principle MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. 

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Roads and pathways of the necropolis, the circulatory space of an entire city of dead.

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The things we leave behind. A metro ticket, left on Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave.

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Lions. Animals and death. There’s a pet cemetery outside of Paris, devoted wholly to household animals that have passed on.

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Just as theme parks and restaurants can act as revenue envelopes, perhaps cemeteries act as disposal envelopes. The architecture, the grounds, the details and delicacies are all, at their core, masking the basic purpose of cemeteries. The ancillary benefits we derive from cemeteries—urban green space, a moment of peace, spaces for reflection, places to grieve—are kind of piled on top of this central purpose, in the sense that there is no reason that a cemetery itself need fulfill all those ideas. 

Cemeteries are interesting because we feel strongly about them, in a way we don’t necessarily feel about that brownstone or highway overpass. They are a rare manifestation of the built environment where it is easy to see the often-submerged ideas and arguments that structure the world around us.

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