This entry breaks new ground for this blog by reflecting on my own attendance of a funeral at a crematorium. Despite my interest in funerary archaeology and many discussions of mortuary material cultures, memorials, monuments, architectures, cemeteries, and landscapes – of the past and present – I rarely discuss my own personal engagements with mortality and its material cultures. I do so here to discuss the experience of participating in a particularly well-attended funeral and how the service failed to be accommodated by the architecture and landscape of a crematorium.

This involves a discussion of a recent funeral to someone who died as a young adult. They were much loved and popular.

Given the recent and emotive nature of this post, for ethical reasons I have anonymised the person and the date of the funeral. I do, however, wish to name the location: Llanelli Crematorium. I do this so that I can reflect accurately and fairly on how the scale and character of the funerary gathering presented a significant challenge for the use of a modern crematorium. Note: I’m making no specific complaint or criticism of Llanelli Crematorium itself, but how the mourners’ experience jars with that of its more typical use and self-description.

The crematorium itself describes its location as follows:

Overlooking Llanelli with views of the Gower where it meets the sea, Llanelli crematorium provides a natural place for families to hold a dignified service of their choice. Serving communities from Ammanford to Llanelli, as well as Pontarddulais, Gorseinon and the Western side of Swansea.

Nestling in the Carmarthenshire countryside, the building has been especially designed to blend into its natural surroundings, offering a place of peace and seclusion, so important for a funeral. Landscaped within trees, lawns and flowerbeds, the chapel and buildings reflect the surrounding rural character.

Their website’s newsletter celebrates recent improvements to the facilities and there is a photograph gallery showing the site in summer. Now, I’d visited Llanelli Crematorium before, and on a casual visit outside of a specific funeral, I would make the following points about this landscape description. I’m not sure what is ‘natural’ about the location – this is hyperbole. Instead, it is carefully located to be close to main road transport arteries. ‘Nestling’ here simply means ‘on a south-facing hillside. ‘Landscaped’ here means it operates on two terraces – one for a access road leading to a small car park, one lower terrace to accommodate the crematorium buildings, but it is a relatively exposed location with wide vistas. Its design might ‘reflect’ the surrounding rural character, but only in the sense that trees, lawns and flowerbeds tend to be outdoors. Howe the chapel and buildings do this is unclear. The website states that it accommodates 126 people, 86 downstairs, 40 upstairs. In terms of access; you are expected to arrive by car only, either your own, or a taxi from a railway station 10-15 minutes drive away. There are not only no buses, but not even a footpath. This is drive-thru funerary culture at its most severe.

And this is what caused the problem for the funeral I attended, because somewhere in the region of 350-400 attendees showed up to mourn the young lady who had passed on.

The simple volume of people created a distinctive engagement with the crematorium. The parking wasn’t adequate and by an hour before the service the car park was full. When we arrived, people had already parked for half a kilometre up and down the approach road – Pemprys Road – running north from the A4138. We heard that people arriving after us were parking on the main roundabout of the A4138 and Pemprys Road. We met a friend of the deceased who had given up trying to park and only got to the crematorium after the service had completed.

For those that did park, they had to navigate a dangerous muddy country lane, steep in ascent and descent, without a pavement, and with many other cars trying to drive around them, to get to the crematorium entrance. Once in the crematorium grounds, there are no footpaths beside the main entrance, so pedestrians and cars had to share the same space. The limitations of car-obsessed deathways become clear.

Once reaching the crematorium, we stood in freezing cold in the open air in a long queue. When the hearse arrived, the crowd surged forward to follow the coffin into the crematorium chapel, the atrium and seemingly an antechamber. When these were packed, perhaps with c. 200-250 people, the remaining 100-150 or so people had to stand outside, gathering under the canopy intended for the hearse to occupy.

This is where I ended up. We were two layers of interaction away from the funeral. Those who made it inside the atrium could watch the service via a television screen. We outside, however, had to listen to the funeral relayed from inside via two speakers positioned outside the main doors. The speakers were connected to the minister’s microphone on the lectern, so all we could hear all that the minster and the family speakers said, and the music, although the hymns were dominated by the minister’s bad singing. The funeral was short and despite heart-wrenching speeches from family, the minister’s obscure quasi-Christian allusions were generic and unsatisfactory.

Being outside, we heard the service via the speakers, but we had to compete with the noise of the wind, a Welsh Air Ambulance helicopter taking off from a neighbouring field, and an old man trying to find parking and driving about unable to steadily deploy his first gear. We also had to listen to some old woman who arrived late for the funeral (or perhaps waiting for the next funeral, it really wasn’t clear) shrieking and laughing loudly as she nattered away to a friend.

We’d travelled across Wales for a funeral to pay our respects and we did so. Being outside didn’t diminish that, and the size of the crowd is testimony in itself to the wide social network of the deceased and their family, and the emotional rupture of the deceased’s passing. None of this was affected by the crowds and the inadequacies of the facilities at Llanelli Crematorium for hosting such a large gathering. It shows the adversity of British funeral participants to endure inadequate conditions and not complain.

I don’t think this is a particular failing of Llanelli Crematoria – I’d imagine the same would occur at most crematoria for exceptionally large funerals, where the number of attendees is unpredictable and family finances cannot extend to hiring another venue. Still, it was interesting for me, as an archaeologist dealing with communities in the past who would have largely held open-air funeral services, to find myself participating in a funeral where the sheer scale of the participants made it close-to-unwieldy. The unpredictability, the affordances and challenges of landscape settings, and the complex designed and unintended results of architectural arrangements, are all themes that link funerals past and present.

I’ve often said positive things about modern British crematoria, and they are, I feel, a much-maligned form of funerary architecture. The speakers and screens afford some contingency for exceptionally large funerals at Llanelli Crematorium and in nice weather I anticipate that, euphemisms aside, this is a fitting location for a most funeral services. However, the car-dominated spatial arrangement, poor pedestrian access, and dismal open-air facilities for those unable to get inside the chapel at Llanelli Crematorium make me think again about these environments. I now wonder whether crematoria really are in any regard adequate for suitably and respectfully honouring the dead for larger gatherings.