Wednesday, 13 February 2013


On Monday night I attended a lecture on the history and design of Crematoria and where Lawnswood Crematoria stands in it. It was part of the Victorian Societys Annual General Meeting to which members of Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery (of which I am one) were generously invited. It was fascinating and I learnt lots plus it was in the rather sumptuous environs of the Leeds Club on Albion Place - which has the beautiful marble lined mens toilets which I sneaked a look at whilst no-one was in there. The ladies by comparison are very disappointing. But it is a very beautiful building inside with lots of lovely tiling and real fires - and it is well worth a visit if you can.

But back to the lecture - it was given by Professor Hilary Grainger who is an architectural historian with a specific interest in Crematoria and she shared her knowledge and enthusiasm very generously over the course of an hour or so, with slides showing the crematoriums she was talking about and quotes from various  publications.

Cremation was found to be legal after Dr William Price (an interesting character who deserves further research) cremated his son on a hillside in Wales in February 1884 but it wasn't until 1902 that formal legislation regarding cremation was passed - which included things like the distance crematoria needed to be from public dwellings and public thoroughfares and that the body has to be placed in a coffin first and aside from some changes made as a result of the Harold Shipman case* the legislation is still the same today.

The main points which I can remember and in no order (other than the order I wrote them down in whilst waiting for John Shuttleworth to come on stage at the City Varieties last night - he was very funny indeed) are:

The architects who designed and built the early crematoria didn't have any precedents and architects often travelled to towns who already had them (the first in the UK was set up in Woking in 1878) to see what they had done and then copied them.

The early victorian and edwardian ones look very similar to chapels/churches with a mostly norman gothic design complete with what look like bell towers but which are in fact chimneys for the furnaces. One contemporary commenter pointed out that these towers didn't issue delightful peels but often belched smoke instead. They slowly but surely over the years lose some the more overt similarities to chapels and churches but the similarity was deliberate initially as it was a way to to get people to trust them and to use them and it was the only kind of building which had a precedent for funerals.

Cremation was very slow to take off but it becomes massively more popular after the Great War - in large part due to the fact that so many people bereaved as a result of that war had no actual body of their loved one to bury or resting place to visit, plus burials in a wet miserable winter are made even more grim because of the dreadful weather and a cremation is held inside. The Anglican church says it is okay for its adherents to be cremated - unlike the Catholic Church which didn't give it the okay until the 1960's.

It was advertised as a form of purification and one gentleman attendee talked of how one of his relatives had his wife cremated as she had died of cancer and he wanted the cancer destroyed.

Lawnswood had two chapels - one anglican and one non conformist linked by a walkway and the magnificent Columbarium was built in the 1930's and at the time it was considered the bees knees of storing the ashes of loved ones or remembering them. It is a very beautiful building indeed - solemn and inspiring too.

Professor Grainger showed slides which showed plans as well as actual views of the crematoria and also some showing the wars of victorian mortuary supply companies and the insides of crematoria and catafalques (the raised bier used to support the coffin before it is transferred to the furnace) and all showed the victorian morticians fondness for the parlour palm. It seemed no crematoria was complete without one.

The difficulty crematoria have is that they are secular buildings but they also have to appeal to all or none religions and the religious symbolism borrowed from traditional christian chapels both in terms of the outward design and the inward trappings gradually fades out over the years - crematoria today are much more plain and municipal than they were when they first started to be built in the late 1800's - modern crematoria often have viewing areas where you can see the coffin being burnt and blank white walls which can be used as video screens.

I can't remember which crematoria it was but one of them was the first to have a door through which you entered and a door by which you left - which is important now as it means mourners don't bump into one another due to the numbers of people being cremated now as opposed to buried but then it was simply supposed to be symbolic of both the deceased and the mourners moving on.

It was a really interesting evening, made me want to learn more and I hope to get a copy of Professor Graingers book from the library :-)

*this reminds me of a chum who whilst at medical school would ring me up every so often and ask if I fancied going for a drink as she had gotten some money - namely 'ash cash' - the money she earnt by signing an okay for a cremation. I've had many a night in the Florence pub (now demolished but it used to be opposite St James) on 'ash cash' - I do hope that those cremations hid no wrongdoing.

1 comment:

  1. Just remembered the plans for one crematoria which featured a superior class chapel, one of the working class and one for paupers - by the time it was built there was just one chapel for all.