Part of my research in the archaeology of death relates to the ‘contemporary past’ – the death ways of the last c. 100-120 years. So, in a series of previous posts I’ve explored the material cultures, memorials and landscapes of crematoria’s gardens of remembrance during field visits. As well as providing analogies and insights applicable to the archaeology of past mortuary practice, these ‘landscapes of memory’ shed direct light on our evolving materialities and spatialities of death linked to the global rise of indoor cremation as a mode of disposal.
As you might expect, during the pandemic lockdowns I’ve been unable to make many field visits. However, I recently had a dual legitimate motive to visit a crematorium:
- Face-to-face field trips for the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory module ‘Landscapes and Memory’ cannot run this year due to the pandemic restrictions. Therefore, I’m arranging for a series of short videos about crematoria as components of ‘virtual field trips’ to be shared with students and then discussed via live sessions on Microsoft Teams.
- I also used this as an opportunity to take my elder children to see where their grandfather had been cremated after he died of cancer at the very start of the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. He received direct cremation as a funeral could not be arranged. Prioritising the safety of those who knew him, we decided not to arrange for a memorial service. His ashes were scattered privately at a location of our choosing. Still, I wanted the kids to begin to understand the processes and places associated with his death on a timescale of our choosing;
Hence, I visited one of Britain’s newest crematoria and Flintshire’s first and only crematorium: Flintshire Memorial Park and Crematorium, near Oakenholt.
Set away from any existing settlement on former farmland, the crematorium itself is a smart white structure at the lower end of the site. There is a separate toilet block close to the main garden of remembrance.
I kept clear of the crematorium buildings to respect the fact that this is a working structure and funerals were taking place, but I was able to survey the grounds and gain an impression of the site. The site is carefully situated to be rural and isolated, with farmland and electrical pylons surrounding it. There are two access points: a long footpath from the nearest main road and a long snaking drive leading to a substantial car park.
The memorial grounds are so new that large tracts of space are planned out with paths but largely clear, awaiting the future dead in mown lawns where currently I presume only ashes are scattered. Unlike older crematoria where the gardens are intensely utilised and therefore cremated human remains are readily witnessed, this open expansive landscape revealed no immediate traces of ash-scattering. I’ve previously discussed this aspect for an East Midlands crematorium as landscapes for the future-dead. As such, these spaces are mortuary environments as anticipators of future memory. Furthermore, this dimension is enhanced by not only a hedged garden without any contents and awaiting memorials, and at least one bench with a plaque noting that you can acquire the plaque for memorialisation!
In addition to being scattered in the grounds, there are a host of interspersed memorial types: described as ‘garden & lake markers’, traditional headstones, benches, rose garden and marker plates, garden memorial plaques, memorial vases, family gardens, tree adoptions and the obelisk plaques (upon a memorial pillar aka ‘obelisk’). These descriptors don’t quite match what I would describe and I’ve seen described elsewhere.
As with many established crematoria, water features are important. There are at least two ‘natural’ landscaped ponds, one beside the crematorium, one upslope near the top of the site in a zone yet to be used. Then were are two formal arrangements of ponds with fountains – one comprised of a series of 7 silver spheres, the other a centrally placed feature, serving as focal points for the aforementioned range of memorials.
In summary, water and plants provide important commemorative media, rendering the 21st-century crematoria and their gardens of remembrance halfway between natural burial grounds and traditional cemetery spaces. They offer stripped-down versions of existing memorial forms, but far greater variability in commemorative media. In their attempts to create an isolated rural idyll surrounded by farmland, the gardens contain replicable consistent ‘options’ of memorial forms from a shopping list; many of these memorials possess the same components but traditional memorial forms are condensed in size. From benches and trees to plantings and headstones, all set around lawns, plantings and ponds, Flintshire Memorial Park and Crematorium offers an isolated and well-managed funeral space set apart from the world of the living in rural isolation.