Remembering and forgetting dead

The dead are brought front of mind in many ways through our public rituals, festivals and ceremonies.

There’s China’s Hungry Ghost Festival, Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, Japan’s Obon Festival and of course, Halloween, which has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Halloween was originally a time dedicated to warding off ghosts with costumes and remembering the dead – rather than collecting candy.

Some of our public places are also expressions of the presence of the dead – like cemeteries.

In a cemetery, the dead are remembered as a form and extension of community. Here, the dead are remembered as individuals through gravestones and other markers.

But in time, many are forgotten, and this too is expressed in the cemetery, through abandoned and crumbling gravestones.

Remembering the dead and forgetting the dead are each visible in a cemetery.

Two cemeteries that brilliantly reimagine remembering and forgetting the dead are NaJa & deOstos’ 2007 Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad and Priestman Architect’s 2022 Vertical Balloon Cemetery of Tokyo.

Neither ‘cemetery’ actually holds bodies and neither exists in the built environment (at least, not yet), but they are conceptual art forms, idealising the cemetery’s roles of remembering and forgetting.

Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad

To say that the Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad remembers the dead is an understatement.

This concept of a cemetery doesn’t invoke the dead in a designated place removed from the living, it doesn’t allow the living the luxury of choosing when to remember the dead – it makes the presence of the dead, and death, inescapable.

As described by its designers, Nanette Jakowski and Ricardo de Ostos who came up with the concept at the height of the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011, this imagined cemetery floats high above what was then Baghdad’s warzone, constantly casting an ever-moving pall over those still living in the city who may yet be elevated to the cemetery as they too are killed.

Like a vast jellyfish floating through a heat haze of smoke and dust, the cemetery’s trailing tendrils of delicate silk are ready to coil around and raise the corpses.

Lush with growth from an endless supply of the dead, it pulses as it expands to accommodate a growing cache of cocooned bodies.

Though it moves and its shadow flickers across crushed buildings and ruined suburbs, it does not leave.

The scale of the work performed by the cemetery is evident in the rhythmic recitation of numbers.

Its designers report that in March 2003 the cemetery took up 143 Iraqi civilian bodies; in April, 3565 dead; in May, 554 dead; in June, 573 dead; in July, 633 dead; in August, 781 dead; in September, 543 dead; in October, 485 dead; in November, 560 dead; in December, 524 dead.

One year has passed.

In January 2004, 562 dead; in February, 580 dead; in March, 953 dead; in April, 1227 dead; in May, 612 dead… another year has passed.

And another year has passed.

In January 2006, 613 dead; in February, 524 dead…

… and still no weapons of mass destruction.

In reality The Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad is made up of sketches, photographs, 3D renders and models, and was devised in London, more than 4,000 kilometres from Baghdad, by people who have never been to Iraq.

The dead bodies though, are real.

The Balloon Cemetery of Tokyo

The Balloon Cemetery of Tokyo isn’t actually the name of this imagined cemetery. Its official title is “Being dead is not the end, being forgotten is” and it is inspired by the aphorism that one dies twice; the first time when one’s body dies, and the second time when one is no longer remembered.

This second death is powerful enough that the ancient Romans used it as a punishment for those already executed once. A second execution – damnatio memoriae – completely erased the person’s name, images and all other traces of a life lived.

What we are calling here “the Balloon Cemetery of Tokyo” is a creative conceptualisation by Priestman Architects from Chongqing in China of being forgotten – of dying twice.

Imagine a building with a huge atrium at its centre, open to the sky. Funerals take place at ground level, where the deceased’s ashes, contained in a specially designed and fabricated box, are placed within a balloon.

The balloon too is carefully designed and fabricated. It’s an auspicious red, made of a tough fabric that can withstand the wind and weather for years and is coated with a film that can resist oxidation and UV rays.

The balloon containing the ashes, measuring about two metres in diameter, is then filled with helium and rises from the ground into the sky, or the heavens as some will have it. But its elevation is constrained by a fibre-optic cable attached to a winding mechanism that slows its ascent.

As it rises, the balloon joins others, dozens at various heights within the atrium and many hundreds more in the open sky. Some are hundreds of metres aloft, others a thousand metres or more.

This column of red balloons can be seen for miles, more evident than any building, their fibre-optic umbilical cords glistening brightly in the sun.

Each day, each balloon ascends a little more, except when the deceased is visited – and this is a vital exception. When family, friends or others come to the Balloon Cemetery to pay their respects to a particular deceased person, the winding mechanism halts the vertical progress of the balloon.

Remembering is realised in visiting, and visiting is realised in a pause to ascent; by a balloon that is held closer to the ground and closer to the living.

As time passes, though, forgetting is inevitable and visitation becomes less frequent. It will eventually cease altogether.

The deceased is forgotten and the winding mechanism continues its slow release to the point when there is no more remembering and no more cable.

The now-released balloon rises at its own pace, higher into the skies until it reaches an altitude where the atmospheric pressure is so low that the forgotten balloon bursts.

At this point of spectacular finality, the internal surface of the balloon is exposed to the sun and the atmosphere, and its specially designed flammable internal coating bursts into flame, incinerating not only the balloon but also the ashes, which are released, free in the wind.

The deceased has been forgotten and is twice dead.

The presence of the dead

These two cemeteries stand in contrast to one another and to Halloween.

Both All Hallows’ Eve and The Hanging Cemetery of Baghdad revolve around remembering the dead, but the Balloon Cemetery of Tokyo evocatively marks a forgetting of the dead.

Taken together, the dead are remembered and forgotten, ever-present but ever transient.

The University of Melbourne’s DeathTech Research Team studies death, technology and society in the 21st century.

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