I sketch the ‘archaeology of contemporary death’ for a present-day crematorium.
Archaeologists can approach the managed municipally or privately run crematoria – their architectures and grounds – from a host of different perspectives. Beyond considering changes in design and layout of the buildings, the design and use of their different memorial components can be investigated, from lawns to traditional cremation graves and vaults. We can also consider their ‘furniture’ and infrastructures – from paths and roads to rubbish bins.
You can read up more about my perspectives on them in my previous posts about crematoria, but here are the most recent:
- Widnes for the Dissolution
- Waiting for the future cremated dead
- Why study cremation past and present?
- Ashes to ashes, funk to funky? Modern crematoria
As part of an MA Archaeology of Death and Memory field trip just before the pandemic lockdown, I took the students to contrasting crematoria. At Widnes, we saw gardens of remembrance augmenting the Victorian cemetery and a crematoria reusing the cemetery Anglican and Nonconformist chapels. In contrast, at Walton Lea, Warrington, we had an example of a crematorium set up only five years after Widens, in 1964, but able to make use of an expansive garden space, formerly the estate of Lord Daresbury (Grainger 2005: 492). Not only far bigger, the gardens of remembrance have many more options for the disposal and commemoration of the dead, including:
A ‘floral court’ adjacent to the crematorium chapel containing multiple features:
Internal memorial features included:
- a memorial wall;
- a kerb of memorial plaques and flower-holders;
- a columnar columbarium
Outside the crematorium opposite the leafy avenue were further features:
Memorial tablets set in a monumental book
Set beside the main driveway overlooking the garden of remembrance, the names appear in a monumental book, a vertical commemorative presence. This is a feature I’ve seen at multiple crematoria but not at Widnes.
The lawned ‘garden of remembrance’
Here there are no discrete memorials are allowed – the location of disposal and subject commemoration set out via lettered grids.
Four seasonal meadows
As well as borders and benches serving as memorial foci for floral offerings, the lawns are by the season, allowing the annual cycle to be linked to memorialisation. Another distinctive feature is that the meadows abut the wall of the adjacent church with its own burial ground.
A cruciform memorial garden containing arrangements of low ledgers with flower-holders and arrangements of ‘sanctum’ vaults (this is the only option comparable to what is availabe at Widnes).
Adjacent to a pond, this wooded part of the crematoria’s grounds is not only where individual trees used as foci for memorialisation. Also, I noticed graffiti on some of the trunks.
The ‘Sweet Dreams Baby Garden’
Between the garden of remembrance (lawns) and the memorial gardens with two lawns and multiple components, including:
- a gazebo;
- the teddy-bear and play-bricks sculpture: each brick is incribed with the name of a lost infant;
- a memorial wall with multi-coloured bricks, memorial plaques appended to it, one per brick;
- a SANDS memorial sculpture surving as a focus of floral offerings;
- a columnar memorial (I understand these are called ‘barbican’s in some of the literature).
Expression and management
This is not a landscape simply comprised of funerary expression, in stands in contrastIn addition to these individual zones, there are themes cross-cutting their varied vegetal and material dimensions. For instance, memorial benches punctuate the grounds, almosto exclusively in wood but for those in the floral court which are comprised of stone.
There are three further issues I wish to discuss pertaining to management (pre-pandemic lockdown, remember). First, I haven’t paid sufficient attention yet to the spaces set aside for displaying flowers used during funerals. Here is a shot of them from Walton.
Second, the scale and prominent of bins for ‘ritual litter’ – flowers, their wrappings, cards and other materials.
Third, there are the signs which direct and manage the space: these are also a part of our contemporary archaeologies of death.
In short, the archaeology of contemporary death focusing on crematoria and their grounds should encapsulate signs and paths, bins and other furniture, alongside the designed zones for different materialities and spatialities for commemorating the cremated dead.
Grainger, H. 2005. Death Redesigned: British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape. Reading: Spire.