In my previous posts about crematoria as landscapes of memory, I’ve highlighted the variable types of garden spaces and diversity of memorials within them: benches, gazebos, bird baths, sundials, walls-mounted plaques, ledgers, trees and flower borders and so on. However, I have hitherto steered away from discussing the childrens’ ‘rainbow’ gardens which now occupy many cemeteries and gardens of remembrance. Here I wish to use another crematorium, in the Midlands of England, to address two additional related issues: (1) gardens of remembrance as configurations for future-memory as well as places for remembering loved ones who have passed, and (2) the inherent imagining of future child deaths within ‘rainbow gardens’.
Visiting a crematorium last year, I realised there is something decidedly eerie about a new crematorium: a landscape of memory struggling to assert itself and with very few memorials yet occupying it. Some has been laid out, awaiting the future-dead. This uncanny dimenion I’ve hitherto addressed for the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, but not for crematoria so much. Having said that, this is an aspect of my discussions of Blacon (Chester) where memorial walls are occupied by names, but there is space for new additions.
The Midlands crematorium under discussion here was only 6 years old when I took photographs (Note: The last time I posted about crematoria was a year ago and I kept the location anonymous; I will do the same here. Also, my focus is not upon individual memorials, but to assure people this is not the aim I have pixellated out names and dates where legible).
There was a tight cluster of different types of memorials already installed, from trees and beds to spheres, sundials, low wedges and other ‘mini-graves’ and ‘sanctums’, and plaques arranged along paths set adjacent to a pond. There were also stone memorial benches situated over the place of burial and alongside paths.
In addition, there were two options for vertical memorial plaques, some on a central columbarium feature, and another on a brick memorial wall mimicking a fragment of an historic walled garden. Here, the empty spaces, blanks which await the future dead are more apparent than the memorials already there. Upon these vertical surfaces there is room for hundreds of additional memorials.
If this was not variety enough, there were various vegetal options: from trees to flower beds in a range of configurations, from pathsides to discrete tree-burial plots.
This evidence is a 6-year-long snapshot of the ‘birth’ of a crematorium’s garden of remembrance, opened only in 2013. A host of memorial options are available in the context of modern crematoria. The variability relates to the choices of the deceased, the decisions and compromises of the survivors, and varied levels of economic investment; after all, the crematoria operate as privately run business attempting to encourage more elaborate funerary investment.
What is noticeable is that this crematorium does not offer more ‘traditional’ cremation burials in the form of memorial tablets with integrated vases set in rows beside paths. Likewise, there are seemingly no ‘traditional grave’ forms at all: nothing to tie the cremated dead to the appearance of a full-sized grave plot.
A large part of the crematorium remains, however, open lawn: some of which will undoubtedly remain clear for the strewing of ashes. Therefore, the dead are not only memorialised through plantings and plots, but the cremains are suffused throughout the gardens. Undoubtedly, some of these lawns await landscape design to create a panoply of further options for commemorating the cremated dead through trees, bushes, flowers, and stone monuments of different sizes. This is an emergent memorial landscape.
At one level, the new crematorium’s gardens of remembrance is well-managed, structured, and demonstrably already occupied by a spectrum memorials to the recent dead, from memorials trees and benches through to individual wedge-tombs and ‘sanctums’. Yet any visitor familiar with more ‘mature’ cemeteries and gardens of remembrance will both recognise all the key memorial components one might expect, but also feel a sense of eerily emptiness to the entire landscape.
This leads to the second point: how crematoria operate to configure spaces for the future remembrance of lost children. There was a designated childrens’ remembrance area, where sculpture evoking an idealised sense of childhood adventure and play, and an actual child play area, afford a ‘busy’ space. In actual fact, most of the memorial plaques are yet to be filled: we are gazing at echos of future bereavement: young lives yet to be lost. Truly uncanny.
The rest of the space is uncanny for the absence of the living or the dead.
This is a landscape of absence – of toadstooks, a sculpture of two children playing, a sculpture of a teddy bear leaning against play blocks, and a sculpture of postal owls (Harry Potter) style guarding a letterbox for communion with the spirits of dead children. This landscape is sentimental but also dialogic, enhanced by the under-5 play appartus shaped as a wooden bugs, a frog and a snail.
There are lessons here for thinking about burial space and mortuary environments past and present. Cemeteries are spaces for the cumulative memorialisation of the dead, with older gravestones and other memorials dislocated and rearranged, removed and/or reused. Yet many of the burial environments we visit today, and excavate in the past, wouild have looked and felt very different from their final or mature appearance. Assisting them along the way, formal plantings, paths and sculpture can facilitate engagement and a sense of a landscape occupied by the dead and ready to receive the future-dead.
So, as well as understanding the life-histories and afterlives of cemeteries: how they develop and transform, how they augmented and adapted after an initial phase of use, archaeologists must be sensitive to the distinctive nature of the earlier phases of burial landscapes, where it space was largely unoccupied and open.
Certainly for modern gardens of remembrance around crematoria, they are landscapes for future memory as much as remembering those whom have passed on; spaces created, designed, adapted and subverted in which spaces for the future dead are exhibited and materialised, sometimes overtly (as with the empty plaques on the columbarium or the empty spaces on the memorial wall), sometimes implicitly (as in the large areas of the lawns yet to be landscaped.