‘What makes people return?’ he asked me. I pondered for a while. Beyond the sadness and the personal stories what makes people return? What makes a place memorable, draws one back or manages to claim that most odd of titles, favourite cemetery?
We discussed the possibilities for a while; the architecture, the horticulture, the setting, the historical significance of the site. Ending our conversation we did not really settle on one specific element that stood out above any other. However, in the ensuing days I could not help but consider the matter further.
I have recently been reading about the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk and Art Nouveau architecture and it struck me how some of these principles directly correlate to the impact of the cemeteries on a visitor. It is not one element that makes these places so impacting, it is the unity of all the constituent parts. It is the overwhelming sense of peace that this concatenation of features engenders.
Of course, that is not to say that there are not specific memorable elements that demand multiple views and endear certain places to us. The wisteria covered pagodas at Warlincourt-Halte or the unusual drawbridge like entrance at Carnieres, for example, both stand out in the memory. In isolation, though, these individual elements do not create that feeling of rest, as though there were great invisible walls, rising from the threshold of the cemetery and reaching up to eternity, encasing all within in some earthly paradise.
For me it is this perfect harmony of site, architecture, horticulture and the execution of purpose that makes the cemeteries not only places of endless fascination but of supreme importance in the wider canon of British architecture. We return because of some affinity with the individuals who fought and fell, but we are happy to return because of the completeness we experience in these places.