Ipswich Icons: What do we do when we run out of plots to bury our dead?
PUBLISHED: 08:00 24 June 2018
The idea of a green burial sounds incredibly environmentally-friendly, being buried in a wicker coffin in a distant wood where nature will take its course and your earthly remains become nourishment for the trees, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.
But just like traditional cemeteries, the deceased will require a new plot and within a couple of years the burial ground has taken on the appearance of an urban cemetery, minus the stone grave-markers.
In a green burial ground everything (except the plot markers) is made of natural materials that will decompose over time, but the plot remains as a last resting place, not to be used again (’cepting for a close relative).
The problem we have with urban cemeteries is that we are running out of space, and have been doing so since the end of the Second World War. The answer has been cremation, and Ipswich was amongst the first local authorities to build a crematorium in the mid 1920s.
The possibility had been discussed by the Burial Board as early as 1917 but such a controversial idea was a little too advanced for some members (and for the ratepayers of the town). It was a full 10 years before the idea became a firm proposal.
A substantial number of influential stakeholders needed convincing of the moral justification for such a dramatic and final disposal of mortal remains. Although funeral pyres were accepted practice amongst a number of other faiths around the world, in this country burial in the churchyard had been accepted for millennia. But churchyards were now full, the town cemetery was approaching capacity and cremation offered an alternative to simply occupying space for ever.
The Ipswich Burial Board approved the construction of a crematorium on June 9, 1927; the Minister of Health sanctioned a loan (£7,000) and a site was chosen in the centre of the cemetery. To meet Section 5 of the Chemical Act 1902 the crematorium needed to be at least 200 yards from the nearest residences. The site met it by being 201 yards from cottages owned by the Honourable Devereux John Tollemache.
Fourteen contractors tendered for the opportunity to construct a chapel and crematorium, and that submitted by VA Marriott of Handford Road was accepted, despite the fact they were having difficulty with the supply of stone. The contract was signed in February, 1928.
The architect was John Sherman of Northgate Street, who had carried out extensive research into the requirements of a publicly owned crematorium. He had visited several crematoriums elsewhere in the country and had come to the conclusion gas incinerating chambers would best suit the site and town.
The cremators were designed and built by JF Askam of Birmingham.
At the start of building work there was discussion as to who should lay the foundation stone and in the end a compromise was reached. There would be two: one laid by the masons and one by the mayor. Both foundation stones are clearly visible to visitors.
The masons decided to incorporate some memorable items under their stone: a phial of architects’ drawings (of the building) and some coins of the realm of the relevant date.
On completion – December 6, 1928 – mayor Dr James Hossack unlocked the door of what is today the West Chapel with a ceremonial key. Members of the council, the Burial Board and civic dignitaries of the surrounding local authorities attended. The West Chapel was built to accommodate 100 mourners and was full for the speeches congratulating architect and contractor.
The first “user” was a resident of Great Bentley, Dr Henry S Turner, whose cremation took place on December 16. Unusually, Dr Turner’s ashes are kept in perpetuity in niche 28 at the rear of the chapel.
The crematorium church remained unchanged for almost 50 years, when some long-desired additions were added: toilets, waiting room and ministers’ vestry (1972). A porch over the west door, of sufficient volume to accommodate a hearse (a porte-cochère), was constructed and the catafalque adapted to accommodate a wheeled bier.
A second chapel (North Chapel) was built in 1978 and became the primary space until 2010. New cremators were installed (2012, by ATI, a French company). These include mercury abatement and allow for the recovery of other metal from the deceased.