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Planning a short summery bicycle ride by the sea in Helsinki, a small island on the map called Leposaari (‘Rest Island’) caught my attention. The name referred poetically to a cemetery on occupying the island. Although the cemetery island is close to central Helsinki, I had not known it. It is next to a larger island of Kulosaari, in the Vanhankaupunginlahti (‘Old Town Bay’).

The Leposaari cemetery island brought to my mind the only other island cemetery I knew, San Michele in Venice. I never been to there, but seen it from afar and on maps. Its near perfect square shape is intriguing, as if it was cut from the Arsenale and thrown aside in the lagoon. As an idea, a cemetery on an island, the crossing over the water to the land of the dead is so ripe with symbolism and mythology that I was instantly curious to see the Leposaari. I headed to the island with a good friend, landscape architect Lauri Mikkola.

The cemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice

The larger residential island Kulosaari, which the cemetery serves, was originally an exclusive community of villas designed in the early 20th century, today a home to many embassies. The cemetery island was planned in the early days of the community and was only then named Leposaari. The most well known cemetery in Helsinki in Hietaniemi is by the sea, so the idea of placing a cemetery on the island is not far-fetched. Moreover, there are several places in Finland called Pyhäsaari – Sacred Island. I could not find out precisely why, but probably it has something to do with either early Christianity or Finnish or Sami paganism (the latter revered holy rocks – sometimes in the form of whole rocky islands or hills). This would have reverberated with the Finnish national romanticism, a national artistic movement of the early 20th century mixed with international art noveau. It took inspiration from the Finnish mythology.

The embankment to the Leposaari island

The Leposaari cemetery is a small, beautiful and cozy. It is peacefully hidden, not many seem to know it. Arriving there, my expectations of a wondrous mix of national romanticism, classicism and mythology, were turned down. Little drama had been squeezed out of symbolic potential of crossing over water, a journey to the otherworld that an island would have offered. An embankment connecting the islands plays down the effect. On the island, one first arrives to a car turning field with mundane trash bins exposed. A small octagonal chapel is at the end of the long straight path on the highest point of the island. That makes the approach to the chapel solemn and classicist, but the axial placement of the chapel also blocks the possible vista to the sea beyond, which I feel would have been a precious thing to have to celebrate the unique landscape. Perhaps the point is that the funeral procession ends at the chapel, whose window open to the sea. All in all, this overall arrangement feels uninspiringly formal on a delicate small island. Such a solution would have been better in a featureless landscape.

The path to the chapel

If the overall arrangement is not successful, the parts of the landscape architecture are elegant and create dignity and intimacy suitable for a small cemetery island. Evergreen hedges spread gracefully like wings around the central path and articulate the cemetery. Sometimes they form enclosed spaces for the graves. Some of graves are simple stones in the grass – minimally beautiful. Some are wide granite-lined and platform-like, all a little different in size and at different angles on the curving rows, and their subtle terracing on the sloping terrain creates a powerfully archaic effect. Some of these platform graves are gravel and in the early May when we visited the island, sprouts of lilies of the valley were pushing through the gravel of some graves – a marvellous effect, which was perhaps due to the low maintenance than intentional planning. A degree of neglect does well for cemeteries, like moss let grow on tombstones, which contributes to a timeless atmosphere, a character of the most memorable cemeteries. One of the most touching these graves was a grave with simplest tombstones – and simple stone bench. What an emotive gesture for people visiting the grave. It reminds of other cultures, like the Mexican, in which people may pass time by the graves of beloved ones, sometimes even staging a birthday party for deceased children.