Crematoria: from evasion to confidence?

This blog is a brief review of Hilary J Grainger’s 2005 book ‘Death Redesigned, British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape‘, Spire Books, 2005.

‘Decent, well-mannered, but not always to the public eye humane’  says Grainger  of British crematoria of the 1950s and 1960s. But it isn’t just at the door of architects. She also mentions the lack of prestige of the crematorium: no high powered civic events take place there and public money has tended to go elsewhere (and possibly some of the most exciting architects?) Designers often poorly understand the mourners’ journey, physical and psychological, as they accompany the dead to the fire which ends their time on earth. There is, in Britain, something incoherent about it all.

Grainger talks of the ambiguity and evasion of the architecture of many crematoria. Tony Walters, latterly of the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, is quoted on the British reluctance to trust abstract modern art: councils don’t commission a phoenix rising out of the ashes, for fear of media ridicule (like going on any trip abroad), so we end up with possibly interestingly textured walls, but oh so careful symbolism and decoration: religious furniture is now mostly removable, but what if you want something other than a gap? One rural crematorium has gone for foliage and birds, what you might call Gibbons-lite.

But the book is full of the better examples, with an extended section on Golders Green, North London, designed by Ernest George, on whom Grainger is the expert. Very far from cosmopolitan taste and investment are the crematoria at Telford, Shropshire and Llwydcoed, Wales, and they fit their purpose well. But still, compare these with the confidence, harmony and honesty of De Nieuwe Ooster Cemetery, Amsterdam, with the wonderful base for the coffin, with a lift that takes it up a floor, where relatives can watch if they wish.

As at Amsterdam, Grainger is unequivocal that the setting and landscape are crucial to the overall experience, linking it to William Robinson, a leading Victorian gardener and member of the Cremation Society in its formative, Golders Green-commissioning days. But even our best efforts seem not as subtle or as striking of many on the continent.

A decade since this book was published we need more on why European confidence remains elusive here. More private investment is being made in new crematoria, but how to ensure that this startlingly good? How can buildings that never host a cheery corporate event or the best private parties become a prestige – and humane – indicator of design expertise?

Expensive to buy, a good read in a library, this book is worth a peruse. 500,000 people a year die in England and three quarters are cremated. The memories should be good.

Llwydcoed image c Jonathan Billinger

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