When cemeteries were first set up in this country, they were seen as places to visit for their beauty; and many are still visited even if they have become overgrown. Crematoria are also worth visiting for their beauty and for the great variety of planting. This is not so much a walk as a selection of a few of those that I have visited. And where better to start than Golders Green?
A range of buildings face Hoop Lane. Built in dark red brick in an Italianate style, they were designed in 1902 by Ernest George. An arch leads you into the garden. The impression is that you have entered a large private garden with a generous lawn and lots of trees and shrubs.
William Robinson designed the original layout of the gardens, but they have been altered since. The rose beds, which have become a feature of grounds of crematoria, are just in front of the crematorium buildings. Additional rose bushes are hidden behind the shrubs along the edges of the garden. The colonnades and surfaces of the building have many commemorative plaques but in the garden the memorials are discreet. Only the Phillipson Mausoleum stands out; but, as it is without inscription, it is like a garden temple but in a modern style. The statue of G D Bira, an associate of Gandhi, and Henry Pegram's sculpture ‘Into the silent land’, are the only other large objects in the garden. Near the crematorium building is a lily pond by the war memorial. At the far end is a more natural lake.
Eltham Crematorium of 1956, although looking more of the thirties, is in Falconwood. It is adjacent to Eltham Cemetery and shares the entrance which leads to the cemetery chapel.
The memorial court, a series of small walled gardens where memorial plaques are placed on the walls, is the first of a series of memorial structures. Part of it is being developed as niche memorials where the remains are enclosed. There is also a chapel of remembrance and a flower pavilion where floral tributes can be placed. The whole of this group of spaces is planted in a semitropical style. The spaces lead to the cloisters, where floral tributes are displayed. Next to this is a formal rose bed, beyond which is a less formal garden with trees and shrubs, a pergola and a pond. Walls partially separate this from the woodland area, which becomes a semi-wild garden at the far end.
A simpler layout is found at South West Middlesex Crematorium. This is in Hanworth and, like Golders Green, is not associated with a cemetery. It is set back from the road and is approached along a drive. At the end of the drive are the gates to the crematorium with stone pelicans on the gate posts. There is a water feature in front of the cemetery buildings. This is new, but replaces the original raised pools. The crematorium was designed by John Denman in the late forties and was built in 1954.
The gardens are entered by gates in the enclosing wall. The first garden has lawns with seats. There are some trees and shrubs and a few flowerbeds. This area is rose-free. The rose beds are beyond this. Beyond the roses is a wooded area, which has a small Zen-style garden of rocks and stones in a clearing. There is also an area of meadow. The crematorium is planning to develop a special area for memorials to children.
Mortlake Crematorium is adjacent to the cemetery of the same name, and like Eltham is a separate enclosure. It was created by the former Borough of Hammersmith, but overall control is now vested in four boroughs - Ealing, Hammersmith & Fulham, Hounslow and Richmond-upon-Thames. The crematorium site can be entered from the Thames Path. This brings you into an expansive area of lawn with many fine trees and some flower beds.
The more formal garden is entered from either side of the chapel, where there are semi-enclosed gardens. That to the right has a fountain and that to left as a pond with semi-natural planting. There is the rose garden behind the chapel and beyond this a formal layout of lawns, paths and a central shelter. The crematorium dates from 1939 and was designed by Douglas Barton.Other Sites
There are many other crematoria in London, many of which are intimately associated with cemeteries. At Tottenham Cemetery there is a large garden of remembrance which includes a lake surrounded by a network of paths and gardens. This garden is not associated with any particular cemetery.
Many churchyards, no longer open for burials – and many church gardens that are not burial grounds – have areas given over to the disposal and commemoration of the deceased. This brings to these areas a spiritual and pastoral use, which is welcome.
Crematoria display a wide variety of garden styles within each site and from site to site. In part these reflect the design and management of the garden, and in part they reflect the various ways the remains can be laid to rest. The container of remains can be buried in the ground in the style of the burial of a body, complete with headstone, or can be placed in a niche in a wall or columbarium. Burying the ash on the site of the planting of a rose bush or tree is popular. Simple scattering of the ash on the garden or in woodland is becoming increasingly popular. All this leads to a variety of gardens. As crematoria have a steady income, they are able to maintain a high quality of gardening. In addition to the gardens, crematoria also display the florist's art. There are bouquets of flowers in the floral halls and in the commemorative areas.
There is also that unique crematorium ritual of viewing the flowers, which developed in the late 1980s as a way of taking one party of mourners out of the chapel by a different route from that taken by the next group entering. This has led to some amusing memorials being on display. In one of the gardens I visited for this article, I saw a shopping trolley, a dog, a bottle of Baileys and the West Ham logo.
I hope I have convinced you that crematoria are as well worth visiting as cemeteries.