York Crematorium
York City Architect’s Department (1962)

Death Becomes Bishopthorpe

The first crematorium in England was constructed in 1879. The Woking Crematorium did not offer religious services initially, but in 1888, a Gothic Revival chapel was added to the site, signalling the broader acceptance of cremation services. Cremation became more popular among Protestants in the UK and was considered ‘modern’ and part of common sense.1 By the 1960s, more than half of deaths resulted in cremation.2 Thus architects, as with other building types, began searching for a suitable language for crematoria in a modern world. York’s crematorium was constructed just as Basil Spence’s Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh, was published for the first time in the influential Architects’ Journal (May 1962), which went on to be highly influential to architects. Yet Asplund and Lewerentz’ Woodland Cemetery in Sweden (1915-40) was still a major point of focus for crematoria. It combines three essential elements seen in York: a functional plan determining the careful movement of mourners, the landscape context, and the gentle monumentality of the architecture. Among the contemporary crematoria that was published in the national press (namely the Builder) and that preceded York, furthermore, were those in Derby and Hither Green, London by their respective Borough Architects’ Departments, which employed a similar architectural language, including a careful monitoring of the movement of mourners through the space, with the buildings set in a rich mature landscape.

South of the city centre, just off the A64, the York Crematorium is very much out of sight. Approximately 35 minutes walking distance from Bishopthorpe Road’s busy independent shops, continuing out of town by the Knavesmire. One would not wander unintentionally to the ground of the facilities operated by York City Council.

Architectural drawings of building from side and above
Fig. 1: plan, section and elevation drawing, by York City Architect’s Department, 1958, reproduced from an original held by City of York Council/Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual: Y/PPT/6/1/4099.

Two reasons would explain the crematorium’s location. Firstly, the direct contact one has with nature and the picturesque scenery on land previously belonging to the Archbishop’s Palace; and secondly, because the Western European approach to death is built upon ignorance. This problem was even addressed in 2014 at the Venice Biennale, in which the architect Alison Killing reflected on the invisibility of funereal architecture and infrastructure.3 The signs, buildings and topics revolving around the end of life are overlooked and swept under the carpet. York Crematorium’s case is similar. 

The building’s function, however, is clear, given the sizeable (and well detailed) chimney in the centre of the building, rising from an open colonnade. The City Architect Ernest Firth, along with the project architect Richard Sawyer and the City Engineer C. J. Minter, did not want to conceal the building’s purpose. When designing the site, they only followed one rule: ‘being respectful towards users of the space.’ They avoided experimental shapes, contrasting materials and vivid colours. Instead, the building harmonises with its surroundings preserving the scene’s peacefulness. No fence keeps the visitors out; therefore, the site has a general sense of openness. The park-like setting with memorial benches and plaques offers a peaceful place of remembrance under the shade of the cherry trees.

Architectural plan of bulding
Fig. 2: plan of the crematorium, unknown creator, 1962, reproduced from: Anon, “York Crematorium,” Builder, November 2, 1962.

From the 1950s onwards, a style called New Empiricism inspired architects to unify diverse building types using a similar architectural language. This approach, often termed ‘municipal modernism’, was inspired by Swedish architecture from before WWII. The followers of the New Empiricism used the same palette of materials on churches as on libraries, schools and other public buildings. Furthermore, architects considered the psychological effects of a building on the users of space.4 Thus, one might have felt perfectly at home at the York crematorium.

Mourners approach the site through a pavement made of Portland stone slabs. The structure is modest: low volumes and elongated shapes.5 Following the supreme rule of modernity, apart from the chapel which is gently pitched, the building has flat roofs. The light buff bricks were handmade in a York firm. Between the brick finished walls, and the roof are string courses of Portland stone.6 The plan shows the highly efficient management of mourners; it is important that they do not witness other funerals (and feel like the funeral is part of a production line), while also not bumping into each other. Users of the space access the chapels through the Main Entrance, which has a decorated doorway with light blue tiles. Before services, family members gather at the Waiting Room, which opens from the Entrance Hall. The crematorium has two chapels, the more significant White Rose Chapel with approximately 75-100 seating spaces. Furthermore, the more moderate Ebor Chapel which has a capacity of 25.7

The interior palette, like the exterior, is neutral. In common with other buildings by the City Architect’s Department, everything is carefully designed, including the furniture.

Within the White Rose Chapel, rows of handmade oak pews offer comfort for mourners. The room is centred around the wooden catafalque. Above, there are two leather panel decorations carefully designed by the architects to blend into the space without attracting too much attention. The chapel walls are covered with Australian walnut strips apart from the window wall. While the three windows let the natural light inside the space, visitors can overlook a small pond in the fenced courtyard. Above the door, through the mourners exit, is an abstract tile decoration with pastel shades.

Within the cremation room, there is a gas-operated twin-chamber furnace. Fans are placed at the far end of the building to provide fresh air. Next to the furnace and the chimney, there is a small walled court with service rooms around. At the corner of the building, a Book of Remembrance Room invites mourners to commemorate the lives of their loved ones.

Photographs of crematorium chapel, entrance and exterior
Fig. 3: photographs of the Crematorium, unknown photographer, 1962, reproduced from: Anon, “York Crematorium,” Builder, November 2, 1962.

Since its opening, York Crematorium has gone through changes. In 2003, a new porte cochère was added to the building providing shelter from the weather conditions and signifying the main entrance of the building.8 Between 2011 and 2013, the building was modified to provide improved facilities. First, the roofs above the chapels were elevated. Then Ebor Chapel was doubled in size – sacrificing one bay of the colonnade – to host more extensive services, and a glass-walled Floral Remembrance Room was added opposite the Book of Remembrance Room. The bricks for the chapel’s extension were imported from Belgium for colour matching. However, the shade of the stones and the mortar are still slightly different from the original.9

The architecture of death, at least as Patrick Nuttgens would have it, can be beautiful. He praised the building in 1970, accordingly:

‘Since the building of Asplund’s crematorium in Stockholm, crematoria have seemed peculiarly tractable to modern architecture. Their functional programme lends itself to coherent massing and inspires a simple but evocative design… The crematorium is one of the most successful new buildings in or near the city.’10