A smooth process is key to setting the right tone for the bereaved in the complex workings of a crematorium. Haverstock Associates displays the art at Guildford
There’s a harsh truth in statistics – as shown with devastating clarity by the annual figures from the UK’s Cremation Society, which make for a grim yet compelling read. A 2017-2019 average of 609,000 deaths per year jumped in 2020 to 692,000, with the number of cremations rising by 70,000 to 543,000. A sole asterisk next to that figure directs the eye to another statistic – the ‘direct cremation’; 54,000 services which, under strict Covid rules, were conducted without any family members present; laying a meniscus of absence on the volume of loss.
And if such seemingly hard-nosed practicalities lie at the heart of Haverstock Associates’ design for Guildford Borough Council’s new crematorium, the firm is not the first to recognise their importance. Statistical arguments to challenge sentiment and ritual were central to the arguments of Sir Henry Thompson, physician to Queen Victoria’s and author of the 1874 paper ‘The Treatment of the Body after Death’, that cremation was ‘a necessary sanitary precaution against propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied’. But historical resistance, including the Bishop of Rochester’s prohibition of crematoria on consecrated land and an Act to site them and their chimneys away from dense population centres, has shaped the nature of the typology: a novel funerary rite consigned to the modern suburbs. And with no bells or smoke or dropped clod, the agnostic, somewhat mechanistic process of cremations left an absence too at the heart of the service. This was addressed at Asplund’s Chapel of the Holy Cross (1940) at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm’s suburb of Skogskyrkogarden. Here, at the architect’s own cremation, says historian Dr Harriet Atkinson, was the only time the chapel’s huge screen wall was fully opened to unite the catafalque with the raw nature outside.
This beautiful and profound precedent must remain bound into the thinking of Haverstock, but for the architect it had to be as much about crematory logistics as about rite – which should be no surprise given its popularity. In the UK, 78% of people choose cremation over burial, and there are now 307 crematoriums in the country, with a half dozen or so coming online annually. Guildford is Haverstock’s sixth design to be realised since its Telford crematorium in 1998. Sitting mid-way in the UK’s crematorium popularity table and performing nearly 1500 cremations a year, its current timed service ‘slot’ means it’s working to about 50% capacity.
Haverstock partner Tom Gibb brings real insight, born of experience, to the type. While mourning and memorial are core considerations in the design, he adds that business concerns – more so in the private than public sector – mean architects must be as cognisant of ‘process’ as they are of ‘procession’. Crucially, that means being keenly aware of the time slots for receiving the cortege, committing the body and letting mourners flow out via the floral tribute hall, and using this process to help create the organigram of spaces and movements across the site.
Over time, that approach has made for interesting revelations. First is the importance of the landscape around as a key element of any crematorium’s business case; chapels of remembrance and memorial gardens provide for revenue generation, be that a name entry in a book of condolences, a wall plaque or tree planted in someone’s memory. Secondly, the tighter the site, the more critical adherence to an allotted time slot becomes to avoid mourner ‘bottlenecks’. Current optimum service length – as it is here at Guildford – is 45 minutes, up from 30 minutes 15 years ago. Back then, Gibb notes, crematoriums were also generally more internalised environments; perhaps the idea of landscape as a potential revenue stream meant facilities eventually peeled out to address them. All to the good: Gibb’s only reservation here seems to be that the building isn’t more robustly tied into its landscape; sold, like Asplund, on the idea that the better embedded the crematorium is in its surroundings, the better a place it will be.
According to Gibb, Guildford is the result of learning gleaned from the firm’s past municipal designs, like the £2 million, 15-year-old Chilterns and 2019 Bierton crematoriums for Buckinghamshire, and the new £6 million Lea Fields north of Lincoln. Guildford was also aided by a client that wanted a design that demonstrated real civic quality, and so was prepared to expand on the site of the old crematorium that Haverstock’s replaced. And history played a part: Section 5 of the Cremation Act 1902 precluded their being sited within 50 yards of a highway or on consecrated ground, and ‘no nearer to any dwelling-house than 200 yards’. Optimising those factors on this site led to the generous plan, positioning the car park at a respectable distance from the chapel and allowing for a generous, long mourner processional route, guided by a stone rill of flowing water, toward the main hall and, rill-less, back via the floral tribute hall adjacent to the chapel of remembrance. As part of Gibb’s wish to ‘embed’ the building, a mound of grass between the routes creates a sense of notional separation; ‘holding the space’, he thinks. Both arrival and exit paths are traversed by the vehicular route for the hearse, allowing it to loop round under the porte cochere and drive off past the admin offices. A smaller, separate car park here allows the daily business of the facility, such as bookings and ashes retrieval, to continue without impinging on services.
The language of the crematorium is understated but surprisingly indulgent for a municipal building, with a low-lying concrete frame expressed either as a trabeated structure or covered in a rich, biscuity Engels Baksteen brick. This is punctuated with either full height glazing or large oak doors, and side panels or oak brises soleil. Not wanting to compete with the sylvan landscape, the architect set the line long and low. It rises only at two key points: above the main chapel and above the cremators themselves. Here, a Rhino-modelled oak structure punches above the datum, clad in a crisply detailed, zinc standing seam roof. Gibb states that a third roof structure was planned for the cremator transfer lobby as families often want to witness the final committal. This was finally realised as rooflights giving views to the sky; but he says the trend has meant specification in this back of house area now needs to be as good as in the main spaces.
With the processional path’s stone pavers running through the entrance lobby to the lofty chapel, mourners arrive at the catafalque set on the diagonal rather than straight on. A landscaped courtyard to the west provides succour for the eyes, but the far corner, lit by east clerestory glazing, is the focus of attention. Governed by the geometry of gathering, it funnels smaller groups to give them more critical mass and ensures that all pass by the catafalque as they leave the chapel, past a small courtyard and out to the exit route. The floral tribute hall has been incorporated as a covered exterior element of the remembrance chapel back at the south side of the site, aside the pool that Gibb regards as the ‘pinwheel’ around which the site of the service and centre of memorial pivot. Beyond the time and distance equation of the route planning, the contemplation pools evince the project’s innate generosity, offering mourners the space to pause.
Guildford’s two gas-fired cremators will each, depending on body mass and water composition, spend less than two hours to take a body through the four stages of dehydration, decomposition, inversion and fusion. This last one, when human bone melds and coalesces, needs temperatures of up to 1300˚C, so it is no surprise to hear that 75% of crematoriums use heat exchangers to put that heat to good use. Here, bulky heat exchange tanks and kit sit beneath the cremator’s zinc roof. Gibb says that loved ones might baulk at the idea of body ‘heat’; but I draw strange comfort from the fact. That time when you ‘feel they are still here with you’? As it turns out, they are.
Gibb says that the industry is looking at electric cremators but these must be held at working temperature to optimise energy use, with a large power supply and back-up batteries. I ask if the sun’s energy could be used but he thinks that would require a solar array rather than just a roof. ‘Could you theoretically evaporate a body using a Felix Trombe mirrored solar collector, like the ones in France?’ I ask him. ‘Possibly. That’s an interesting idea…’ he says after a moment. But why not? It took the court case of Dr William Price, an eccentric Welsh druid arrested in 1883 for trying to cremate the body of his own baby son, to ascertain than the act itself wasn’t unlawful, a ruling that paved the way for cremation in the UK. Why not let the object of his worship do the actual job?
But Gibb is more concerned with fact than fiction and the demands of the next design for Hemel Hempstead, where the firm plans to take advantage of the broad landscape and use bunds or gabion walls to sink the building into it: the crematorium as long barrow. For him, however, the challenge remains merging the technical considerations with the more philosophical concepts of grief and memory. ‘We’ve done enough of the fine-tuning,’ he concludes. ‘For us it’s about taking that spiritual aspect to a higher level.’
Project value: £10m
Average cost of cremation (Guilford): £3,383
Contractor Buxton Building Contractors
M&E consultant RHB Partnership