Death Place

Reflecting on Death Architecture

When we think about how architecture can improve our quality of life, we usually think about buildings that bring us joy and purpose: apartment buildings, art galleries, museums, office spaces, parks, and so forth. But, How often do we think of hospitals?

Memento Mori —remember you will die

Humans have always placed considerable importance on death-related rituals. We see them in the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, and many other traditions. Throughout history, we managed to die at home in our beds, looked after by loved ones and family. One of the reasons was the scarcity of access to optimal medical care.

However, in the 20th century, with technological advances, we saw a societal transition. With the discovery of new medicines like penicillin that treated deadly infectious diseases & new medical technologies, we also saw a need for hospitals as large centralized buildings that became our modern-day hospitals.

After the second world war, many nations set up universal healthcare systems for everyone who needed treatment; lifespans expanded from about 45 at the start of the century to almost double today. This trend brought vast optimism about what scientific frontiers could offer in prolonging life. But, in our story, we forgot to remark death. Our clinical and conversational approach to the end of life changed drastically.

Source: https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/museo-degli-innocenti-hospital-innocents-florence-brunelleschi/

How we relate to death culturally is reflected in the design of our cemeteries.

The meaning of spirituality, faith, meaning of life as well as rituals, ceremonies and tributes change with evolving times.

Pablo Picasso Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle 1952 Tate © Succession Picasso/ DACS 2022

Today we are at higher risk of dying of cancer and heart disease than tuberculosis. With chronic illnesses, the exposure of hospitals inevitably increases. Many of us will spend the end of our lives in hospitals, hospices, and nursing care homes.

Having said that, despite spending almost 14 years in hospitals as a medical student, trainee physician, and consultant, when I think of pagers, special care beds, endless corridors, rows of uncomfortable chairs, and overall lack of human twinkle, I wonder who would want to die in a place like that?

Hospital spaces and designs have earned a bad reputation. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always like this. Brunelleschi, one of the most famous and influential architects of his time, designed hospitals with ambition with courtyards in the middle the spacious rooms with daylight and high ceilings, so they felt more comfortable being in. This is not the case anymore.

The conversation about death and architecture is meaningful because where we die is a crucial part of how we die.

After all, think about what does a good death mean to you and what kind of space supports a good death?

For the longest time, I felt that meditating on one’s mortality would only make it worse and more depressing. But I missed the point. It is not only the practice of reflection on my mortality but also to create priority, significance, perspective in life. As Yalom says, "The amount of death terror experienced is closely related to the amount of life unlived.”

Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather intentional and purposeful.

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Dr. Aisha Sanober Chachar

Dr. Aisha Sanober Chachar

Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist; Co-founder & Director @synapsepk Mental Health Entrepreneur. Recycled Stardust.Balint Group.Psychoanalysis.Grit 🇵🇰