Anna-Joy Veenstra

Anna-Joy Veenstra (BAS Honours) is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture. Her thesis, currently entitled Relinquish to Dust: A Centre for w(R)esting Grief in Toronto’s Community, explores why cities need a new approach to memorialising our loved ones. For more information, visit Anna-Joy’s thesis blog and portfolio.

What is your thesis about? Screen shot 2013-06-24 at 4.26.48 PM

This thesis intends to offer a new methodology and vision for an urban community, one that incorporates the cycle of life, death and rebirth. In a society induced to discount the importance of humanity’s mortality, the space allotted for death in the city is allocated to the outskirts or even ends up as dead zones within the city. The proposal is to search for a means to integrate this shadow into the urban fabric and everyday life of the city’s community. Without this, there is a danger of creating cities without memory that are in denial of both death and humanity’s relationship with history. The thesis uses project precedents, documents, data, interviews, and sketches to develop design proposal iterations for Toronto’s downtown harbourfront that embrace the life-long search for meaning after loss through grief work.

Did a personal experience with grief inspire you to pursue this topic? 

We have all been touched by the loss of a loved one, some earlier in life than others. However, it wasn’t my grief in particular that provided the main driver, it was rather the experiences of grief by those around me that raised questions of what I felt I could do for them. At a young age I perceived this sense of loss indirectly through the death of a best friend’s mother in a car accident, the knowledge that my mother lost her mother to cancer before I was even born, the slow passing of a family’s eldest patriarch in my childhood church and the suicide of a classmate’s twin brother. It is the question of caring for family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in our contemporary world that interests me. How can I, how can we, how can a city acknowledge and support each other’s life-long search for meaning after loss?

An example of how far we need to come is in how Canada has figured out the importance of a yearlong parental leave for a newborn child (35 weeks + 15 weeks of maternity leave), yet bereavement leave is typically only three to five unpaid days and not even all the provinces and territories have this meagre amount legislated. We have begun to understand the need for developing relationships as crucial at the beginning of a new life, yet we don’t take the time (or allow the time) at the ending of a relationship and the reshaping that takes shape from there.

Why is a new vision so important? 

As a society we need to stop avoiding the topic of our deaths and face it together, because only once we do, can we focus our efforts towards more meaningful developments, within the city, our families and community. It has to begin on an individual level, but quickly our society will feel the impacts. This will be the case particularly if the leaders of our nations took this to heart. If the people who make the final decision regarding war or peace between nations had contemplated their own deaths, perhaps destruction would not be the common tact, rather a movement towards peaceful resolutions would occur.

I have been pondering how grief is a tool to move from meaninglessness to meaningfulness after a loss; then pairing that with how architecture enhances the emotions within, makes them apparent to the outside world and provides people with a feeling of being part of something greater than themselves. As Alain de Botton said in his 2008 book The Architecture of Happiness, “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.”

Considering how important grief is for the healing process towards leading a meaningful life, our society seems to place an undue pressure ‘to just hurry up and move on’. It is no wonder people feel so alone in their grief with this conflict between their feelings and what the industrious world proclaims. Models of grief for them are few and far between. Even friends and family are often uncomfortable with the grieving process, as it reminds them of their own unresolved pain and how precarious their life is.

However, grief is very real, because loss is real. This pain of loss is so intense because in loving someone a binding connection formed, which death then broke. Grief reflects this depth of love and connection found with another human being. Yet by feeling what at first seems like great emptiness, then becomes the capacity for fullness. There likely won’t ever be a moment of finally ‘getting over’ the loss; instead there is the possibility of renewed meaning and enrichment for having known the loved one.

I understand the role of the architecture here as providing a framework in which people can participate in their grief. A place where they can find a model, a language, a ritual, or an identity to aid in the process. People once placed a lot of importance on the event and experience of grief, but it has since been lost in transition, there is no longer a place for it in our current contemporary world. Architecture can help provide such a space and bring back the focus to experience life in its entirety. For Toronto, this strong sense of place lies along the harbourfront as a gathering place for the city’s population to connect and support one another’s search towards meaning within the cycles found in nature.

How would you describe Toronto’s current approach to burial and mortality, and do you think this applies to many other cities? 

Unlike me, most people living in Toronto weren’t born here. They came as immigrants, as small Canadian city dwellers or perhaps from a rural upbringing. There is a unique blend of multicultural backgrounds in Toronto that I have been hard pressed to find to the same extent in any other city so far. This makes translating ideas from a flavourful Toronto to other cities (and vice versa) difficult, particularly when talking about death, although universal, the rituals that accompany it are so varied.

There are over 200 cemeteries listed in Metropolitan Toronto that are spread out through the city, and come in a variety of sizes and shapes, are mostly contained within the grid system and bounded by streets. However, the conditions of these cemeteries generally range from neglected, inactive, marginalized or full. The city has grown around the original ones, restricting further growth and relegating burial to the outer limits once again. Finding a spot in the city for an individual to be buried is becoming increasingly difficult and costly, forcing many to journey out into the suburbs and the new larger cemeteries located there.

There is a need to counter this by placing cemeteries in the midst of our urban environments, creating acknowledgement by making them visible, and providing a sense of activity/identity/place. By situating the cemetery in the midst of the city, human mortality returns to the core. As a place of equality, in the form of a resting ground and a meeting place, all are welcome, living and dead. By bringing the cycle of life, death and rebirth forward, the responsibility to not only care for the earth, but for each other, here and now, increases. This cemetery can provide a new and resilient way to interact and live together in the city.

The trend in Canada and particularly Toronto, is moving away from burial and towards cremation. This has to do with changing religious beliefs, limit of space in inner city cemeteries, struggles with strict cemetery by-laws, and the desire to be scattered in a location with personal attachments. Another emerging shift is towards natural burial, where concrete vault liners, coffins, embalming, and granite monuments are done away with in favour of shallow graves, biodegradable containers and planted trees to encourage the body to return to the earth naturally.

According to your research, what are some ways cities can better integrate and bury the dead, and become more acknowledging and supportive to the living?

My research has led me through a variety of recent case studies and current proposals ranging from building towers for the dead, landscaping contaminated sites, incorporating spaces for the dead into urban planning (perhaps using our dead as a way to make sacred spaces and historical sites by the laying of bones and ashes), and even mixing the cremated remains of a loved one into concrete that is placed in formwork for artificial coral reefs to name a few. Recently, there was a competition entitled design for death that produced entries focused on eco/green deathcare and wrappings of mortality.

While studying in Rome, I was surrounded by such varied methods towards memory, whether it was visiting the still functioning Protestant Cemetery embedded in the city wall alongside the Pyramid of Cestius, or walking along the longest straight road leading into the city (the Via Appia) which is lined with monuments, columbarium, catacombs, and funerary fragments or seeing the saints enshrined in countless churches. It was here, among this fodder, that I decided to pursue the marking of burial as a piece of important urban community architecture for Toronto, while keeping in mind the opportunities to challenge the status quo and search for new possibilities that incorporate grief work.

Do you think younger people have different grieving needs to older people? If so, how would you incorporate these into your vision?

I see the differences in our needs lying in a greater context that encompasses age/maturity, gender, relationship to the deceased person, nature of the attachment, mode of death, prior losses and family/cultural grief. The interplay between all these pieces (and a variety of unnamed others) creates very personal experiences of loss and grief for an individual. My vision provides an opportunity to explore different approaches in a safe environment among other people. Susan A. Berger provides some insight in her book The Five Ways to Grieve into the choices people make as they adapt to dramatic life changes after a recent loss (and beyond) that may include aligning with a new identity like: nomad, memorialist, normalizer, activist, and seeker.


Anna-Joy’s thesis will be available through the University of Waterloo’s library both as a hard copy and online download by the end of 2013.

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