Spring was in the air at last as we gathered in the West Memorial Court to await our guide, Eric Willis. We were in extremely good company as we were surrounded by Marc Bolan, Bernie Winters, Hughie Green, Norman Vaughan, Ronnie Scott and Keith Moon amongst others. Sadly it was only their memorial plaques that were there. But it was like a trip down memory lane as you had to be of a certain vintage to remember some of them.
I had been expecting a drab, municipal building but the Crematorium is built in the style of a Northern Italian Lombardic monastery in warm red brick. It looks out onto Hoop Lane and its semi detached houses and if you didn’t know what it was you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a large church. Its tall campanile tower actually houses the crematorium chimney. The impressive cloisters, 240 feet in length, are also filled with the memorials of the great and good.
The Crematorium is the oldest in London opened in 1902, 17 years after cremation was legalised and in response to a growing demand for cremations. Although the crematorium was completed in 1939, buildings were added whenever money became available. The land had been purchased for £6000 and the architect, Sir Ernest George, also designed Claridges Hotel in Mayfair. It’s still privately run and, to date, has conducted over 328,052 cremations with the ashes of 100,000 people scattered over the dispersal lawn in the grounds. It’s estimated that 2000+ creations take place there every year. The Crematorium is Grade II listed with 3 columbariums, 3 chapels and a and Hall of Memory. All religions are welcome and as we were shown the Jewish shrine I spotted a small altar to an Indian deity.
However, the crematorium is also secular which means that the service and music are the decision of the friends and family of the deceased. It also caters for atheists with a ‘communists corner’ where the ashes of numerous ex-communists are held.
The word columbarium comes from the Latin for dovecot or niche for sepulchural urn. The West and East Columbariums are built in the form of towers and had the appearance inside of a reading room with urns deposited on the shelves instead of books. They stretched up to the ceiling. But each one told their own story. Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, had a plain and simple urn. But the ornate urns to two victims from the Titanic disaster were especially poignant as their grandchildren had recently visited due to the recent centenary. In the East Columbarium, Eric revealed that he places every moth or butterfly that was trapped and died inside the columbarium very neatly under Captain Thomas B Hanham RN’s impressive bust.
In the Ernest George Columbarium Eric showed us the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s urn in a small alcove. It was flanked by a ceramic swan and a a ballet dancer. Sadly her ballet shoes had also been on display but had recently been stolen and so, as a result, security had had to be tightened. And then we moved onto Sigmund Freud’s magnificent and large Grecian urn on top of a matching column surrounded by flowers. Please note that since my visit Freud’s beautiful urn has been smashed. I don’t think that it was a Freudian slip.
Afterwards we visited the West chapel which can seat 200 people and had a beautiful marble plaque to the Maharajah of Cooch Bahar and his family. Eric then led us into the crematorium itself to see the business of reducing the dead to ashes with the staff patiently answering our questions and dispelling various myths about the process.
The 12 acres of grounds are beautifully kept and the crocus lawn in Spring is renowned. Sadly, we had just missed this splendid sight and, despite an exhaustive and informative tour, we ran out of time to explore them. Instead we admired the ornamental lily pond by the Victoria Cross memorial on which 2 mallard ducks paddled near the tea rooms. There are 14 holders of the Victoria Cross who are commemorated on the memorial who have been cremated at Golders Green. We didn’t see the Marc Bolan Society’s gift of a bench with white swans as armrests. They gather on 16 September every year to remember the singer and cosmic elf’s death in 1977. We also missed seeing the bronze statue, called ‘Into the Silent Land’ of a young girl being lifted heavenwards by a mysterious draped figure. Apparently, at its previous site within the grounds, it had scared a staff member so much as it loomed out of the morning mists, it had had to be moved elsewhere in the grounds. Eric showed us photos of the statue from his own collection together with some of his own paintings and his affection for the Crematorium was obvious.
Golders Green is well worth a visit or two as there is so much to see and appreciate. My thanks to the very knowledgeable and entertaining Eric Willis, and Golders Green Crematorium for their hospitality. Even if we were, at times, reduced to celebrity spotting as famous names leapt out at us at every turn.
I visited the Crematorium in 2013 and although I’ve always intended to return as there was still much to see such as the mausolea including the Philipson Family mausoleum designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and the second pond but haven’t managed it yet. Well worth a trip if you’re in London.
Copyright text and photos Carole Tyrrell