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Death Redesigned: British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape By Hilary J Grainger.Spire Books, 2006. £34.95

'A rather lonely building in a lonely place, ' was how one historian described Britain's early crematoria. The rise to dominance of cremation in the 20th century - partly from concerns over land supply - has not, until now, led to a proper study of this most culturally complex of 20th-century building types and settings.

There are 250 crematoria in Britain, but little consensus on what public and spiritual values their designs seek to embody. There is a cultural ambivalence at the heart of much crematorium design.

Are these sacred places, or the final outposts of municipalism in a state of awkward grace?

Hilary Grainger doesn't avoid these questions, though in the end she seldom raises serious objections to the inconsequential architecture of many. Those using them often find their design uninspiring.

In Untold Stories, Alan Bennett describes municipal crematoria that give the impression of 'the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provincial airport confined to domestic ights'.

On leaving a 20-minute committal service at the local 'crem', many ask, 'Was that it?'

The first modern crematoria in Europe adopted a Neo-Classical style suggesting a return to pre-Christian burial practices. In Britain this quickly turned to Gothic, then Domestic Revival, before settling on a style described as 'to Poplar from Lombardy, via Sweden.' Some 60 per cent of British crematoria date from the 1950s and 1960s, in which the social architecture of 'Scandinavian Welfare Modernism' prevailed. It would be wrong to suggest that there are no accomplished buildings.

Mortonhall in Edinburgh by Sir Basil Spence, Glover and Ferguson (1967) and Coychurch, Bridgend, by Fry, Drew, Knight & Creamer (1970) both have a degree of monumentality and power of place that the marking of death has historically required.

Many design problems remain unresolved, however.

Should the catafalque remain at the centre of the proceedings, and what should be the last public view of the coffin?

Should mourners be able to look out to the landscape beyond during the service, or should their minds be concentrated by a wholly enclosed chapel interior? Does the use of separate entrances and exits only exacerbate the conveyor-belt criticism, and why are some architects still intent on disguising the chimney? Is the use of a cross now wholly unacceptable, or does it - as Asplund and Lewerentz argued in Stockholm - now have a non-religious hold on the public imagination?

On landscape matters the book is at its weakest.

Death Redesigned contains many (rather gloomy) archive photos but few building or landscape plans. Nevertheless, Grainger's study is a major achievement. It can only stimulate further discussion as to how to design meaningful places for death in an increasingly ahistorical and individualistic society.

Ken Worpole is the author of Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West

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