Horizontal stratigraphy is a geological and archaeological term for when you can see vertical strata shifted into the horizontal plane, or else chronological change can be mapped out in horizontal space. In other words, rather than the newest layers or deposits or other archaeological features being closer to the surface, they are in available for investigation in relative sequence over a ground surface.

Funerary archaeology often encounters examples of this is the relative ages of burials raidates or extends from an original core (or cores) as the burial site expands. Sometimes we witness a mix of horizontal and vertical stratigraphy working in tandem, as for example with an Early Bronze Age burial mound where graves are not only added farther out from the primary interment, but successive layers of building and enlargement of the mound means graves are inserted at greater heights too.

Thus, whether through intercutting, which thus secures a relative dating to the cutting of the graves, or by other means such as the changing form and character of the grave and its contents, or indeed, absolute dating methods being applied across the site, but also conclusively where the dates of death are recorded on memorial inscriptions, spatial shifts can exhibit a range of chronological changes.

I witnessed a good example of what, in crude terms, constitutes ‘horizontal stratigraphy’ at Widnes crematorium and cemetery during an MA Archaeology of Death and Memory.

Yet rather than horizontal stratigraphy in grave-plots, I would like to observe here a horizontal stratigy of gardens of remembrance spreading out from the crematorium.

IMG_20200227_111905This involves a sequence of 3 separate gardens of remembrance adjacent to the Victorian cemetery chapel converted into a crematorium.

The oldest presumably dates back to the 1959 conversion of the Grade II-listed chapel (Grainger 2005: 497). It comprises of a walled garden surrounded by Victorian graves with internal paths framed by low kerbs. This arrangement affords multiple options for disposing of the cremated dead at the crematorium, with different registers of monumentality, but none intervening as discrete burial plots. They offer varied departures from the ‘traditional grave’, although presumably throughout the duration of its use the cremated dead also joined burial plots in the wider cemetery. Yet, within this original garden of remembrance, there are:

  1. lawns for ash-scattering,
  2. low kerbs with flower-holders,
  3. internal dwarf-wall lintels as memorials
  4. the inward facing lintels on the taller external walls as memorials.

Each of these options allows the cremated dead to be integral to the gardens without well-defined spaces

With memorials integrated into a coherent planting of mature trees, it affords a distinctive and managable garden of remembrance. While modest, even austere, it lacks the more elaborate space available to crematoria established away from a pre-existing cemetery. It was also created at a time when cremation memorialisation wasn’t quite so profit-driven. Still, integrated into the design one can see memorials of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. In contrast to the brand-new crematorium of the 2010s discussed in the previous blog, there are no expansive lawns, various sculptures, rose-gardens and memorial walls, ponds and other water features. This is cremation memorialisation of the 1960s and 1970s, not the 21st century!

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The ‘horizontal stratigraphy’ exhibits itself in the creation of two successive additional gardens of remembrance to augment this original one. The first was called Four Seasons – built in a circular arrangement and opened in 2002. The range of memorials is maintained but shifts in its form and character. There are memorial plaques placed centrally on a ‘barbican’, and ‘sanctum’ vaults arranged in a circle around it. Next, there are low kerbs bearing small metal plaques facing outwards onto the inner circular path, an area for ash-scattering and memorial trees amidst bark chippings. Then, there is an outer circular path framed by more of the ‘sanctum’ vaults. Stone memorial benches encircle this arrangement upon a lawn.  The overall impression is starkly different from the first garden of remembrance.

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A third ‘woodland’ grave circular arrangement of similar ‘sanctum’ vaults is the third, most recent, and when visited still incomplete, stage in the horizontal stratigraphy. It superficially looks similar to, if smaller than, the Four Seasons garden of remembrance. Yet here, there are four concentric circles of sanctum vaults and four sanctum vaults at the centre in an awkward arrangement. There are no plantings or alternative memorial forms at all. It is clearly incomplete, and an outer, fifth, ring of sanctum vaults has only just been initiated.

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I should add, there is the option to opt out of these cremation gardens, with smaller cremation plots with traditional gravestones found elsewhere in the cemetery, mimicking traditional graves. These are also accompanied by memorial benches, but in wood.

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As well as the striking circular arrangement, and the ‘back to nature’ allusions of the plantings linked to each season (for the second garden of remembrance) and the integration into a woodland grove (for the third), the facility for above-ground deposition facilitated by the sanctum vaults gives the second and third arrangements both an enhanced spatial integrity and formalised structure. Yet there is almost a Victorian necropolis aura to these small vaults too. Elsewhere, I’ve seen them arranged in rows but the circular arrangement exposes their blank sides to viewers, degrading their limited and spartan charms. While yet another example of distinctive cremation memorialisation departing from the traditional grave, there are stronger allusions to traditional burials in these newer gardens than in the garden of the 1950s/’60s.

What does this tell us? Well, as discussed before in earlier posts, this is another example about how each crematorium offers a different permutation of options for disposing of cremains, from lawns and memorial benches to rose beds and memorial walls. Widnes has particular challenges operating with limited space within an existing cemetery. Yet, in addition, here we can see a stark contrast in the materialities of the 1950s/’60s garden of remembrance adjacent to the crematorium, and the 21st-century successors placed farther away, both in circular arrangements, one evoking a four-seasons garden, one a woodland grove. To my eye, the attempt to mimick Victorian garden cemetery mausolea on a smaller scale, rather than mid- to late-20th and early 21-st century gravestones, is kitsch. Juxtaposed against the older garden of remembrance where the memorials to the dead are firmly integrated into a garden design, the kitsch quality is only enhanced. Still, this form of cremation memorial is clearly popular with some and it does facilitate the above-ground installation of the cremains in a fashion lost for other modes of disposal and memorial.

Grainger, H. 2005. Death Redesigned: British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape. Reading: Spire.

Note: I tried to write about some legal or criminal dimension of memorials to the dead in Widnes and call the post ‘Widnes for the prosecution’, but I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. Still, I’ve at least aired the pun now in a more obscure way!