The new Chester Crematorium is situated adjacent to its 1960s predecessor at the eastern edge of Blacon Cemetery, off Blacon Avenue, Chester. I recently visited with students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory to learn about the process of cremating the dead in modern indoor oven facilities followed by the crushing of the ‘cremains’ to create ‘ashes’ using a cremulator. We are very grateful to the staff of the crematorium, particularly Wayne Atkinson, for generously giving up time and accommodating our visit, as discussed here.
Looking at Chester crematorium offers an important case study for considering current architectural and landscape designs for the disposal and commemoration of the cremated dead in early 21st-century Britain. This is because it is neither an old (19th or 20th-century) crematorium nor one recently built on a de novo site; it is instead a recently built new crematorium adjacent to a pre-existing crematorium and cemetery. Thus, the new crematorium augments and transforms the existing cemetery space, including the incorporation of the old site of the crematorium, recognised as still a ‘sacred’ focus, within the existing garden of remembrance.
Therefore, I want to consider the contexts in which the cremation process is taking place – looking outside the crematorium at both the designed memorial landscape and the facilities and dimensions associated the management of the space. I will then discuss the interaction with the juxtaposed surrounding industrial and residential landscape of Chester’s suburbs. In so doing, we can appreciate the planned and the seemingly incidental but key dimensions to the crematorium and memorialisation within its garden of remembrance. I will do this in the form of a photo-essay; we each picture prompting a discussion as we go along.
First-up, this is a clockwise drive-thru experience: cremation reflects our car and motorised hearse culture. It is possible to walk in, but the principal emphasis is upon the driver. There is a new road with pavement on only one side, lighting and road-markings (double-yellow lines warding off random parking plus white lines marking out parking spaces. Above you get a clear sense of the approach to the crematorium building along a new road and adjacent path. Likewise, on the way out, there are parking spaces to facilitate visits to as-yet unoccupied plots for cremation burials. What is striking is that this is a landscape currently near-free of the memorials and remains of the dead, and yet kept trim for future years and future decades.
A Managed Space
Movement around the crematorium is, however, also intended on foot; whether visiting individual memorials or locales within the gardens of remembrance. A series of long lines of slabs mark out burial plots as yet unoccupied, and accessible by paths. There is also a dump for flowers and other recyclable materials, screened from site by earthwork banks in the corner of the garden of remembrance near the canal and cycle path. Signs warning of dangers and directing movement, bins encouraging recycling of materials, as well as small miniature headstones marking the zones of the garden of remembrance, are all material cultures of managing the crematorium grounds and garden of remembrance.
Diverse Media: The Garden of Remembrance
Gardens of remembrance are more than managed spaces around the crematorium building; they have evolved into complex commemorative environments which give many different options for remembering loved ones. At Chester, the existing gardens of remembrance provide setting and context for the new crematorium. As well as containing specific burial plots for the cremated dead, they provide more diffused environments in which hundreds and hundreds of ashes can be scattered amidst trees, bushes and well-managed lawns. From the crematorium, they can be seen and visited; meanwhile from the gardens, the new crematorium is strikingly visible, its curved roof mimicking the contours of memory through trees, plantings, lakes and streams.
The pre-existing garden of remembrance create micro-locales where ashes can be strewn and commemorated through ephemeral and modest material cultures, including flowers, cards and wind chimes. It is a landscape in which the media for commemoration extend beyond artefacts to include trees, shrubs, flowers, moving and still water. Also, the environment attracts bird-life, which gives a clear avian dimension to contemporary landscapes of memory. There is also a walled garden, allowing names to be added to small plaques in their hundreds to its walls. Finally, with the building of the new crematorium came the demolition of the old one: now the former crematoria’s site is transformed into a new element of the garden of remembrance: a circular garden set within the existing roads which had previously taken hundreds of coffins to their conflagration.
Around the Crematorium
The crematorium and its garden of remembrance are not the only elements to be discussed. The association with the pre-existing cemetery to its west is also crucial; especially as a fraction of the ashes will not be taken away by mourners or scattered in the garden of remembrance, but will join family burial plots in the cemetery.
In addition, we might entertain the broader landscape into which the crematorium is situated. While in no way ‘planned’, I would suggest the crematorium’s wider surroundings reveal further dimensions of significance to the building and its environs. The crematorium is situated off Blacon Avenue and opposite the Police Station, while the cemetery is surrounded on two sides by private houses. To the south though, the former railway line, now the Millennium Greenway cycle path, brackets the site. To the east, electricity pylons and the Ellesmere Port canal mark its edge.
This location makes the crematorium and its striking design extremely visible to those passing by; this is not hidden away but a building and a landscape can be looked upon by all. As such, this is a very public memorial landscape. For instance, it is visible to walkers, cyclists and motorists from Blacon Avenue and walkers and cyclists using the canal towpath and Greenway. Visiting graves here, even with significant tree-growth, is always going to be a public act even if the site is securely managed and locked out of hours. This combination will presumably dissuade vandalism and casual uses of the site while facilitating a sense of public engagement and awareness of the crematorium and the garden. These qualities of location have many dimensions of significance to them, including perhaps dispersing any fears or uncertainties about this publicly operated and managed facility.
The view out from the crematorium also deserves note. Greenery is abundant via the wooded former-railway embankment. Water is again significant, such a key element within the garden of remembrance is also reflected in the canal’s presence. The electricity pylons are more unfortunate an association. Finally, skylined to the north-east is the edge of the Countess of Chester hospital, marking a relationship between death and cremation in the urban topography which I suspect is neither purely coincidental (in terms of spatial proximity) nor an aspect which landscape designers will have consciously wished to invoke.