Our final encounter with architecture increasingly takes place in crematoria but, despite an association with modern bureaucratic society, the type has a long history
Along with every other facet of life, death went into crisis with the onset of industrial modernity. The resulting feeling that the West does not handle mortality well was the spur to the modern cremation movement, but it has since become the source of its most vigorous criticism – crematoria are, to this way of thinking, banal, suburban and euphemistic. The obstinacy of the critique suggests the problem has not been solved and, although it has a problematic aspect itself in that it often implies an othering of peoples presumed to live more ‘authentically’ (ie, more primitively) than Westerners, it is also a truthful acknowledgement of the profound impact of technological modernity on human life. This process finds its ultimate architectural manifestation in the crematorium.
There is nothing intrinsically modern about cremation, of course. In Israel and Italy, the remains of prehistoric columbaria – the name comes from the Latin columba (dove) and speaks of the resemblance between the houses of birds and of urns – point to the practice’s longevity. It was employed in many ancient civilisations and preferred in much of Asia, whereas the doctrine of bodily resurrection, wherever it has been adopted – in ancient Egypt, and among adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – resulted in an emphatic rejection of the practice.
Source: Collection Artedia / View
In countries such as India, on the other hand, cremation is widespread. Bodies are burned on riverside pyres, preferably by the Ganges, and the ashes dissolved in the water at ghats. Other cultures – such as the northern Europeans, who burned their leaders in longships, and the Balinese, who consign their dead to papier-mâché temples or buffaloes – make temporary structures that will also be destroyed by the flames. In Thailand, crematoria or meru take the form of miniature temples crowned by unusually tall, dislocated spires that house chimneys.
‘Reports of exotic alternatives to burial fell on the receptive ears of free thinkers and radicals who were discontent with the established church’s grip over public life’
It was arguably the encounter of Western colonialists with such practices that initiated the modern cremation movement. Reports of exotic alternatives to burial fell on the receptive ears of free thinkers and radicals who were discontent with the established church’s grip over public life, and coincided with concerns sparked by the problem of body disposal in rapidly urbanising societies. The result was a campaign waged by a congeries of novelists, medical scientists and sandal-wearers (among them CFA Voysey’s father, a dissenting cleric).
Italy crematorium 1881 granger
The innovation was strongly opposed by the church, and the Cremation Society of Great Britain’s first experiment with the carcass of a horse sparked an intervention by the home secretary. In the end it was the action of a Welsh Neo-Druidic priest, William Price, that led to the legal acceptance of cremation in this country; he was arrested during the attempted incineration of the body of his child in 1884 but a trial found there was no legal impediment to the practice. The society could now proceed, and they hired an ecclesiastical architect to construct a small Gothic Revival building at Woking in 1891.
‘The crematoria of northern Italy, which initially adopted the practice in an enthusiastic flurry of anti-clericism, are like temples’
The first British crematoria were churchlike – an intriguing paradox as they were manifestations of the nation’s secular tendencies (Britain has one of the highest cremation rates in the world: nearly 75 per cent of us end up as ashes). But to encourage the custom, it was evidently thought wise to ape the traditional architecture of death. Elsewhere in Europe, classicism ruled: the crematoria of northern Italy, which initially adopted the practice in an enthusiastic flurry of anti-clericism, are like temples; the earliest example, built in Milan in 1876, is an inflated sarcophagus with intercolumnar glazing. Père Lachaise (1894) is a Byzantine fantasia, and Behrens’ sublime example at Hagen (1908) is a tribute to San Miniato al Monte, its campanile transformed into a chimney.
Designers of these early examples struggled with the essential problems of the type in a vacuum of tradition: furnace placement, how to disguise the chimney, what to do with the body during and after the service, landscaping and so on. The enduring ambivalence of the configuration of crematoria is a result of the absence of any conventional ritual or ceremony that might determine a sequence of spaces.
In Britain, Golders Green Crematorium was built by Ernest George between 1901 and 1928. It was the first example to be designed in the UK by an architect of any stature, and it pioneered the separation of entrance and exit, thus producing a dual progression through the building for both the living and the dead. It also introduced what Hilary Grainger has called the most important innovation of British crematoria builders: a new landscape of death in the form of the garden of remembrance designed by William Robinson.
Source: Arcaid Images / Alamy
Source: Bildarchiv Foto Marburg
It was not until the interwar years that the rising popularity of cremation necessitated the linearity pioneered at Golders Green. Each batch of mourners was ushered out of the back of the building after their allotted 20 minutes to allow the next party to arrive beneath the inevitable porte cochère without embarrassment. The corpse meanwhile had either trundled along a belt into the back room, sunk through a trap door, or vanished behind motorised curtains. All of these solutions suffer from a degree of anticlimax, irresolution or incongruous mechanisation.
Attempts have been made to ameliorate this sensation. Perhaps the most famous is Asplund and Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm (1935-1940), a landscape dotted with structures through which the crematorium is reached via a sloping path beneath a looming cross. The ceremony is conducted in a room which, on its completion, opens out to the woodland via a glass wall that descends, Tugendhat-style, into the floor (or at least it is meant to: the mechanism has been out of service for several years). The mourners are thus invited to turn from the scene of death to the light and life of the natural world.
Ashwinikumar crematorium (6)
Source: Studio Matharoo
Source: Ludovico Lombardi
The AR featured another possible solution in a 1967 article by one of Maxwell Fry’s partners, Peter Bernard Bond. Bond proposed that to reconnect mourners with the object of their bereavement they should be able to watch the coffin enter the furnace. Although this may seem macabre, one could hardly argue that it is more shocking than the traditional descent of the coffin into the earth, and no more visceral than the clod of earth flung onto its lid. It was the lack of this almost violent immediacy, Bond argued, that lay at the root of cremation’s emotional inadequacy, and this could be resolved by design.
Cultures with longer histories of cremation have no such qualms about the realities of the process. Hindus are expected to witness the consumption of the body by the flames, and in situations where a pyre is impractical, mourners observe the insertion of the coffin into the furnace instead. The magnificent crematorium built in Ashwinikumar in Surat by Studio Matharoo in 1999 accommodates funerals in a series of curved concrete chambers, each with its own oven. The body moves along rails through an open door into these, closely observed by the mourners. It is hard to imagine a more conclusive and more intimate experience of death.
‘The municipal crem does produce a sensation of loss, although this is not so much in regard to the departed as to the irrevocable demystification of the world’
However, any suggestion that such practices should be adopted in countries where death has become more bureaucratic is wrong-headed. In the end, the tawdriness of postwar British crematoria inadvertently gets the tone just right, and creating a more sophisticated facility will not solve the more profound problem of which it is only the final symptom: alienation in industrial society. To attempt a superficially transcendent solution at this moment – even and perhaps especially by the means of monumental architecture – risks perpetrating a distasteful untruth. Indeed, the municipal crem does produce a sensation of loss, although this is not so much in regard to the departed as to the irrevocable demystification of the world. This is embraced in Japan, where 99.9 per cent of people are cremated and remains can now be stored in a giant high-tech columbarium in Shinjuku, whence individual ashes are summoned by swiping a card: a filing cabinet for the dead.
Milton Keynes was one of the last new towns and one of the project’s final municipal buildings was – fittingly – a crematorium. This was commissioned from one of the town architects shortly before the closure of the architecture department. As such it is one of the final municipal crematoria in the country, as the building of such facilities was largely privatised under Thatcher. It is a proud conclusion to the tradition of local governmental patronage, taking inspiration from no less a monument than Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum. The structure is covered by several in-situ concrete cycloids, the largest of which vaults the chapel. This space terminates in a small circular chamber at the centre of which stands the catafalque. A curtain may be drawn across this at the conclusion of the ceremony. Behind this is the committal room, to which the coffin is transferred before being moved into the cremation room at the rear of the building. This is a continuation of the standard arrangement of British crematoria. More originally, another small circular chamber opens to the chapel’s west, offering a sanctuary for private mourning, while to the east is a space for musicians. After the service, mourners withdraw to a secluded garden at the building’s rear. The building is completed to a high standard of energy conservation, being naturally ventilated by wind towers mounted on the roof and heated by the crematory furnace.
Edited crematorium shoot 2 picture 8
This extraordinary building by Henning Larsen seems, at first sight, to be a simple, somewhat bracingly sober composition of rectilinear brick volumes. The truly exceptional character of the structure only becomes apparent in the plan: rather than focusing on a dominant ceremonial space, the centre of this building is the cremation facility. Mourners pay their final respects in a small antechamber before watching – if they wish – from a glazed corridor as the coffin is inserted into one of six furnaces. The architects state that this decision was partly motivated by concern for the crematorium staff, who are provided with a light and airy space for their work, with an undulating, 12m-high roof; this claim, though justified, rather underplays the revolutionary inversion of typological convention.
Communal crematorium 01
One solution to the problem of moving the coffin between the room in which the funeral ceremony is held and the cremation facility itself is to sever these two functions entirely, as KAAN Architecten has done in its project at Sint-Niklaas. Here the two structures are symbolically separated by a lake, and while the ceremonial building is open to the landscape, the smaller crematorium building is almost entirely enclosed, with only narrow apertures cut into the upper reaches of its coffered concrete skin. The route through the ceremonial building passes through a carefully choreographed succession of spaces: it is accessed beneath the looming roof, which hovers above the ground at one end and provides sheltered seating. Mourners then enter an antechamber with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden, and from there they move into the main room. This has no windows, being illuminated instead by circular ceiling lights and, at the end, the catafalque stands before a dark marble screen, which forms an emphatic full stop.
1 crematorium heimolen kaan architecten ©stijn bollaert
Japan has the highest cremation rate on earth at over 99 per cent. This is partly due to space limitations, and partly because it accords with the Oceanic tenets of Buddhism, but these were only scaleable thanks to the nation’s rapid technological advancement in the 20th century – cremation did not become widely popular until after the Second World War. Convention dictates that mourners witness the insertion of the coffin into the crematorium oven, and after the remains have been burned family members use large chopsticks to pick the bones out of the ashes, placing them in an urn. Toyo Ito’s Meiso no Mori or ‘Forest of Meditation’ crematorium provides all the requisite facilities for this ritual: three waiting rooms, two valedictory rooms, a hall with six cremators, and two ‘inurnment’ rooms. The novelty of the structure lies in its swooping concrete roof, which is supported by elegant columns that drop seamlessly to the floor from the soffit. This permits expansive views of the lake beside the building from the glazed circulation areas.