Skogskyrkogården's history begins at the beginning of the 1900s, when it became apparent that Stockholm’s cemeteries were insufficient and needed complementing. Stockholm City Council decided to build a new cemetery south of the existing Southern Cemetery, in modern-day Enskede. At the time, cemeteries were generally considered “Gardens of the Dead”, with grandiose parks, tree-lined avenues and impressive headstones raising a kind of memento to the dead. The city’s cemetery committee had a desire to move away from this ideal and to instead create a cemetery centred on the underlying landscape.
In1914, the cemetery committee announced an international architecture competition in which entrants were to take advantage of the local topography and woodlands. Nonetheless, this did not mean that entrants needed to restrict accessibility, architectural design or artistic flourish. All elements were to blend in harmoniously. It was also to be easy for visitors to find their way.
No fewer than 53 entries were received, some from Germany, the foremost architectural power of the time. However, due to World War I, most entries were of domestic origin, and most went straight in the wastepaper basket. Most entrants had quite simply failed to understand the “thinking” behind the new cemetery.
Instead, first prize was awarded to Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, two thirty-year-old architects. Their entry, “Tallum”, was the only proposition centred on the Nordic woodland experience. Though even their creation needed a great deal of tweaking before work on Skogskyrkogården could begin in 1917.
Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz
Photo: Susanne Hallmann.
Over the next two decades, the unique cemetery gradually took shape. From the pine-covered boulder ridge, the two architects created a holy landscape with several chapels nestled seamlessly into the natural surroundings. The actual graves were arranged in blocks in the pine forest. The landscape architect was Lewerentz, who also created the Almhöjden meditation grove, the Skogskyrkogården memorial garden and the Chapel of Resurrection. Asplund designed all other chapels and buildings.
Some of Sweden’s foremost artists, including Sven Erixson, Carl Milles and Otte Sköld, also contributed with decorative elements.
Skogskyrkogården memorial garden
1940 witnessed the grand inauguration of Skogskyrkogården’s crematorium, The Woodland crematorium and its three chapels — those of Faith, Hope and the Holy Cross.
The unique cemetery was now complete. It formed a harmonic whole combining nature, architecture and artistic ornamentation — in stark contrast to the usual metropolitan burial grounds with their endless rows of monuments.
Foto: Susanne Hallmann.
Just four months later, Gunnar Asplund died. Lewerentz had already left Skogskyrkogården a few years earlier, after his abrupt dismissal. In some respects this was for the better, as Skogskyrkogården could be “frozen” in its original form, with any calls for adaptation to modern demands rebuffed.
The result is that even the smallest details have remained true to the original design. Lewerentz later resumed his collaboration with Skogskyrkogården, designing, for example, the memorial garden.
Outstanding cultural and natural heritage
This is also what enabled the 1994 inscription of Skogskyrkogården on the UNESCO World Heritage List of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. The world heritage listing ensures Skogskyrkogården preservation and protection for future generations.
UNESCO’s decision was based on Skogskyrkogården's qualities as a prominent example of architecture and a twentieth-century cultural landscape being formed into a cemetery. A cemetery that has greatly influenced cemetery design throughout the world.
Skogskyrkogården was only the second cultural heritage site from the twentieth century. All other cultural heritage sites are considerably older.