For the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory, and the MA Archaeology and Heritage Practice, I teach the module ‘Landscapes and Memory’. On a recent field trip for the course, we explored the grounds of two crematoria: Pentrebychan (Wrexham) and Blacon (Chester). I’ve discussed both these memoryscapes before, for Pentrebychan here and Blacon here and here. However, this field trip aimed to do something different. I wanted to get the students to compare and contrast the crematoria architecture and their landscape settings, and, in particular, the life-histories of the sites from their origins to the present day. In doing so, I hoped the students would recognise how crematoria have adopted and adapted pre-existing landscape features, and how they have evolved and emerged as memorial environments through relationships between memorials to the cremated dead and traditional grave-plots.
Their differences were key too. Both crematoria and their gardens are superficially similar in function – a chapel for funeral services followed by the burning of bodies in gas-fired ovens and the scattering or interment of cremains within the gardens, or to be taken away for disposal elsewhere by survivors. Yet there are clear differences, particularly their textual dimensions, their ‘future spaces’, their relationship with cemeteries, and the nature of their inheritance of earlier features.
- My previous post identifies many of the key dimensions of this landscape. In addition, on this trip, we discussed the prominent environments where texts were deployed to commemorate the dead in a cruciform arrangement of brick walls with modest plaques upon them. In addition, there is a bird bath near the new crematorium with memorial plaques upon it: previously I hadn’t noticed this feature. It is part of a widespread avian association with the cremated dead I’ve identified in other cemeteries and gardens of remembrance from columbaria and gravestones;
- At Blacon, the crematorium adjoins the cemetery, allowing the connection with an active space for inhuming the dead too;
- A further notable feature is that the sign board showing the plan of the cemetery and crematorium has yet to note the presence of the new crematorium. Instead, the former, now demolished, crematorium is depicted. Hence, the formal record of the designed landscape is recent, but now irrevocably out of date – partial and inaccurate;
- Yet Blacon has no connection to earlier landscapes: it is a 20th/21st-century landscape, with the oldest feature being the canal and railway line that border it on two sides.
- Another distinctive feature of Blacon is how it has planned for the future. Large sections of the grounds are ‘future spaces’ – awaiting memorials yet to be installed. This is most notable in the re-designed plantings and empty plots where the former crematorium was located. Likewise, south of the new crematorium is a wide open space marked by lines of concrete slabs which will form the basis of future plots. There is sufficient space for decades to come;
Focusing on these five aspects, let’s now turn to Pentrbychan. Despite many similarities in terms of plantings, paths, and many architectural features and memorial spaces, there are a number of key differences.
- No texts are allowed to accompany memorials in most of the ash-scattering lawns and spaces at Pentrbychan, although there is a formal compromise in the recent cremation of a wall of memorial plaques akin to that found at Blacon. There are also some flexibility offered for those wishing to balance memorial flower holders at particular locations within the memorial landscape, associated with large wooden sleeper-framed flower ‘bins’.
- At Pentrbychan, the crematorium is separate from Wrexham Cemetery – so in contrast to Blacon the cremated and inhumed dead are spatially discreet at different locations. Again this means there are no gravestones or markers;
- This is the first and only crematorium on the spot, but the location of the crematorium is instead situated over the former 17th-century house;
- The formal gardens of the former-house have been adapted to create the memorial gardens. Hence the ponds, woods, and drives, plus the walled garden, are all inherited features. The same is true for the dovecote. Furthermore, the line of the early medieval linear earthwork Offa’s Dyke that runs through the grounds and, indeed, the former-house and current crematorium sit over the line of Britain’s longest historic monument.
- The lack of grave plots means that there are not overtly discernible ‘future spaces’. Hence the future of death is not materialised so overtly in empty space at Pentrebychan. The collective spaces endure beyond the ash-scattering – the Wisteria Walk, the ponds, the trees, the walled garden and so on integrate the dead more completely into landscape design