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The Architectural Expression of Cremation in Interwar Britain

Grainger, Hilary J. (2013) The Architectural Expression of Cremation in Interwar Britain. In: Stylistic Dead Ends? Fresh Perspectives on British Architecture between the World Wars, 20 - 21 June 2013, St John's College, Oxford.

Type of Research: Conference, Symposium or Workshop Item
Creators: Grainger, Hilary J.

From the outset the lack of a shared and clear expectation of what was required from a crematorium as a building, gave rise to the cultural ambivalence lying at the heart of many designs. Not surprisingly, architectural responses have often been ambiguous and evasive. At once utilitarian and symbolic, religious and secular, crematoria are fraught with complexity and present a series of challenges for architects. Despite the fact that crematoria remain the invisible buildings of twentieth century Britain each one tell us a great deal about social and cultural attitudes, not least its changing attitudes towards the disposal of the dead in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A paradox lies at the heart of the choice of architectural style for British crematoria. One might expect a new method of disposal, predicated on new technology, to adopt a modernist idiom, but historically there has been a reliance on traditional styles. This paper explores the reasons behind the architectural expression of cremation in interwar Britain.

At the time of Freeman’s lecture, there were only 13 crematoria operating in Britain, today there are 250. In 1906, 0.12% of deaths resulted in cremation; today the figure stands at 72%. It is therefore fair to say that 7 out of 10 people here this evening will be disposed of in a crematorium and all are likely, at one time or another, to attend one for a funeral service. As a result, Britain’s crematoria emerge as a significant element within contemporary life worthy of scholarly attention and deserving of a new critical reading, since they offer an architectural form that reflects the values and social life of a modern, urban society. Although the first crematorium in Britain opened in 1889 at Woking in Surrey – as a building type - it belongs firmly in the twentieth century. As cremation slowly gained acceptance in Britain, this progress was reflected in its architectural expression and as the theologian and anthropologist of religion, Douglas Davies points out, each crematorium can therefore be seen as ‘a symbol of social change’.

In contrast to the Indian tradition of cremation, the practice in Britain and Europe was developed from the outset as an indoor disposal activity and as such, one that called for a new building type, by definition, without architectural precedent. The necessity for dedicated buildings stems in part from the practical concern. We all, but most particularly, those of us involved in the realms of art, architecture and design, ought - at the very least –to hold an opinion on, if not play a role in determining, the aesthetics of a building type, which is increasing in its social and cultural significance as we move further into the twenty first century.

Official Website: http://www.stylisticdeadends.co.uk
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Date: 20 June 2013
Event Location: St John's College, Oxford
Date Deposited: 24 Jul 2014 15:30
Last Modified: 04 Sep 2015 21:46
Item ID: 7401
URI: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/7401

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