Half a Life’s Work

by John Harwood Austin

I have spent the majority of my working life as a funeral director with our family firm, which has served Hertfordshire for almost 300 years. For over 200 years it was only possible to carry out burials, the first crematorium opened in Woking in 1885. Cremation evolved very slowly at first as people preferred conventional earth burials in Churchyards and Cemeteries. I have looked through our records covering the period 1900 to the present day and found that we attended crematoria very infrequently before the Second World War. It was simply a question of distance. Almost all cremation post-war took place at either Golders Green or Cambridge. Both of these were quite a hike in the days of no motorways and main arterial roads passing through every town and village.

In the seventies, and the expansion of Stevenage, the First New Town, the pattern began to change. The Old Town still existed but the majority of the town’s population came from London, in particular, and other parts of the UK. They had no roots in Hertfordshire therefore cremation started to replace traditional burial.

As we approach the millennium, the percentage of cremation is now 74% and rising. In some inner city areas this is as high as 80%. Hertfordshire has just one crematorium and by the time we reach the millennium, the county population will have exceeded one million residents.

It was not difficult to see that the facilities offered by Hertfordshire’s only crematorium would soon be inadequate and unable to cope, even with other crematoria outside the county boundary.

I spent much time in the seventies trying to persuade local councils to consider the idea of a crematorium to serve North Herts and Stevenage. It was not only Stevenage that was increasing in population, Hitchin and Letchworth in the North Hertfordshire districts were growing too. Welwyn and Hatfield had been designated a New Town in a further phase. Financial constraints were the real cause of the problem and it became obvious to me, in the mid-eighties, that there would not be the funds to provide this essential amenity for the area.

I had several discussions with local council officers about the matter and even managed to get representation from North Herts District Council and Stevenage Borough Council around the same table. This was the first meeting when I put forward the suggestion that the local authority should provide a site for the crematorium and we, as local funeral directors, would attempt to get the finance together and build a private crematorium on a municipal site. I received a very disappointing response and it seemed that there was no chance of getting assistance with a project in any way. The local authority could, I suppose, have offered free planning facilities or advice for a future facility.

In 1989, I realised that if something was not started soon, then we would be unlikely ever to get a crematorium in our area. By this time, the number of people wanting cremation had risen considerably. I approached Stevenage Borough Council and enquired if they had any objections to my company looking into the idea of planning and building a crematorium. There were no objections to this proposal, indeed, I think they were actually relieved at someone taking on the responsibility. A responsibility which many believe should be part of the local authority’s statuary duty. However, that duty covers burial but not cremation.

I spent the next two years looking at about twenty different locations in the area close to Stevenage and North Herts. Once I had carried out a feasibility study, it became obvious that the crematorium should be sited close enough to serve Letchworth and Baldock in North Herts and Welwyn Garden City in Mid Herts. Also, if it was placed close to the Stevenage boundary with another district it would also serve Hitchin, Hertford and Ware, plus all the small towns and villages in between.

After much thought and travelling around the area, I came upon some farmland in Datchworth which was absolutely perfect for our purposes. The location is two miles from the A1(M) and a few yards from the Stevenage to Hertford A602. The area is on a bus route served from the main bus concourse in Stevenage and the railway station.

I have spent over thirty years visiting crematoria all over the UK but mainly in London and the Home Counties. Since starting on this project I have taken trips to crematoria for the purpose of advising on the crematorium I am developing for Stevenage.

As a Funeral Director, I have had bad experiences on many occasions where the design or administration of crematoria have been wanting. I have even experienced policy, where the feelings of the bereaved have not been considered. The whole idea of a crematorium is to offer those who normally associate with a church, the same service at the crematorium.

Details are important, especially when people’s feelings are very fragile at a funeral service. They do not wish to walk out of the chapel straight into another group of mourners. They wish to see their floral tributes being cared for and the staff at the crematorium acting in a helpful and respectful way.

Many of the designs of crematoria do not help crematoria or funeral staff to operate their services as they would wish. It has been my desire to look at places which do meet the criteria of efficient and dignified funeral services and find ways of making improvements. It does not need to cost more money in order to show some thought for the mourners who, after all, are only there because they have lost a loved one or a colleague.

In Harwood Park Crematorium we have tried to bring the mourners into the building through a separate waiting room which is away from the Chapel and the Vestibule. There is a music control room where the attendant can efficiently operate the equipment without interfering with the service or disturbing the mourners or Clergy. The administration office has been placed away from the Chapel to prevent any noise transference through the fabric of the building.

The Chapel itself has been designed with the catafalque off centre in order that the mourners do not automatically have the view of the coffin at all times. Indeed, we have placed a large window at the front of the Chapel giving a distant view of the Parish Church of All Saints Datchworth and the fields surrounding the hill top farm.

To exit the Chapel there are double doors which open into the Wreath Court with raised areas for tributes. These raised areas allow those in wheelchairs or mourners unable to bend easily to read the flower cards.

The vehicle exit road takes all the traffic from the car park on a different route to the gates, avoiding the arrival of the next funeral. Services will be arranged at 45 minute intervals to give families a little more time when necessary. Service times will be available during normal working hours, evenings and, if required, at weekends.

The areas for memorials have probably been given the most amount of planning and thought. We have included a number of opportunities to select a favourite way to commemorate the life of a loved one. These include memorial seats, dedicated trees and shrubs, a rose garden with plaques, stone memorials with various designs and many other options.

In this modern age, we not only have the most up to date and efficient equipment to allow the staff to give the best service possible but we must make ourselves available to serve those who require our help whenever they need it and not just when we find it convenient to offer that service.

Since opening in 1997, Harwood Park has cared for almost 45,000 bereaved families.