Austin's Blog


Harwood Park celebrates 25 years

April 22nd, 2022    Author:

Tranquil setting of Harwood Park Crematorium

This year marks 25 years since Harwood Park Crematorium & Memorial Gardens opened its doors to families across Hertfordshire and beyond. The tranquil chapel is surrounded by beautiful 25-acre gardens including woodland areas, rose-filled trellises, an avenue lined with pretty cherry trees and a secret lake. It’s a very special place with fascinating origins and more to it than meets the eye.

Austin’s Funeral Directors has been serving the community for over 300 years, and for over 200 of these it was only possible to carry out burials, not cremations. When John Harwood Austin (Claire’s father) took over the family business in 1965, his vision was to provide a crematorium to serve the people of Hertfordshire.

The first UK crematorium opened in 1885 and it evolved very slowly, as people preferred conventional earth burials in churchyards and cemeteries. John spent time looking through the Austin’s records and found that crematoria were very infrequently attended before the Second World War, and post war there were only two within relative driving distance of Hertfordshire, in West Herts and Luton.

John spent much time in the 1980s trying to persuade local councils to consider the idea of a crematorium to serve North Herts and Stevenage, due to both the increasing popularity of cremation and the growing population, but financial constraints meant that progress was slow. Eventually, in the mid 1990’s John sourced a plot of land in the village of Datchworth and in February 1997, Harwood Park Crematorium & Memorial Gardens was finally opened. By this time, the percentage of people wanting cremation was 74% and rising.

In all, John spent over 30 years visiting crematoria all over the UK to help make his vision a reality. It was his drive and passion to ensure that Hertfordshire residents had this service on their doorstep that saw every last detail thoroughly thought through during construction; from the large window in the chapel overlooking the countryside, to raised areas for wheelchair users and separate entrances and exits so that mourners didn’t have to come out of the chapel into another funeral procession.

Back at the time, John wrote: “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.”

The team at Harwood Park remain dedicated to John’s vision and many have been there for a long time, notably Nick Cuthbert, Senior Crematorium Technician, who started the year it opened. Nick oversees the maintenance and repair of the cremators, as well as looking after the plots and memorials within the grounds. The team were also very flexible during Covid, setting up web cams so that family and friends could watch the services when numbers were restricted. And they have recently installed map signs in the gardens to help visitors to find their way around the grounds.

The Harwood Park Memorial Gardens are open everyday for families to come and remember those they have lost. The gardens serve both as a final resting place for loved ones and also a peaceful retreat for family and friends to visit. There are chestnut, birch and woodland trees, all planted as saplings, so you can watch them grow and mature. There are also memorial trees throughout the grounds and woodlands, all accompanied by a memorial tablet or plaque, and ashes can be scattered or buried by the trees.

Claire says:  “Aside from the cremation services we provide, Harwood Park is an amazing setting of peace and tranquility. The memorial gardens are visited in much the same way as a local park and I have even seen families gather for picnics there.

“Over the next 25 years, the existing gardens and woodland will mature but we will continue to develop and expand the gardens, for the benefit and enjoyment of future families.”

From the carefully pruned roses to the immaculately planted topiary crescent, it’s a lovely place to enjoy the beauty of nature, which is so important in dealing with grief because it reminds us that life goes on with the changing of each season.

Find out more about Harwood Park Crematorium & Memorial Gardens at

Austin’s raise almost £250,000 over 20 years of their Charitable Fund

March 25th, 2022    Author:

There are celebrations all round as this year marks 20 years of the Austin’s Charitable Fund. The fund was set up back in 2002 by the Austin family to support and benefit charities and organisations in the local community, and includes a local Annual Charity selected by the family alongside some significant other financial support to local causes.

Managing Director, Claire Austin, explained that, prior to the Fund being set up, they would always have a lot of people writing to them with small charity requests, such as sponsorship for the London Marathon and other challenges; so they decided to focus their efforts and raise even more money for a few, select causes each year instead.

Each Annual Charity is promoted through their branches, website and social media. Funds are raised through families donating to the cause after losing a loved one, a percentage of profits, annual events such as the Christmas Carol Service at Harwood Park, and donation boxes in all of the branches.

Claire said: “The original concept of the Austin’s Charitable Fund was to find a way to ‘give back’ to the community we serve. The bereaved  families we look after live and very often work locally. Many of them have been supported by local hospices and care providers. Therefore, we feel we are creating a ‘circle of giving’.”

Over the last 20 years the fund has raised an incredible £242,385.54, after the most recent donation of £5,709 was made to 2021 Charity of the Year, the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance (EHAAT). A representative from Austin’s always visits the charities to hand over their cheques and this year it was Jackie Lawrence and Maggie Bashforth who were delighted to present the donation to EHAAT at their base in North Weald.

“We chose Herts Air Ambulance as our 2021 charity because they provide an amazing, but largely unseen, lifesaving service to our community and are funded purely by charitable giving,” said Claire.

Jackie Lawrence and Maggie Bashforth hand over the cheque to EHAA

A blog published last year by the Charity Commission stated that over 90% of charities had experienced some negative impact from Covid-19, “whether on their service delivery, finances, staff, or indeed on staff morale, resulting from the months of frustration and uncertainty”. Furthermore, 60% saw a loss of income, and 32% said they experienced a shortage of volunteers. While charity fundraising is always vital to their survival, the last few years have been particularly tough for everyone and highlights the impact something like the Austin’s Charitable Fund can make.

Just some of the charities represented by the Fund over the years include: Riding for the Disabled (2005), Hertfordshire Young Homeless Group (2007), Cancer Hair Care (2014), North Herts Samaritans (2015) and Resolve (2018), as well as local hospices, hospital charities and bereavement charities. They’ve all received donations between around £5,000 and £7,000, and some even more.

Alongside the Charitable Fund, there are other avenues of fundraising that Austin’s finds to raise more essential funds. Claire herself has had her fair share of challenges, visiting India in 2010, Vietnam in 2015 and, most recently, the Arctic Circle just before Covid hit, to raise funds for Home Start Hertfordshire. In fact, Home-Start Stevenage (as it was called back then) was Austin’s first ever Charity of the Year back in 2002.

Another avenue is the recycling scheme at the crematorium at Harwood Park. The metal that is left over after a cremation (hip joints etc.) is collected and sent over to Holland who then send some money back. Around every 4-6 months, Austin’s submit an application to the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management with a suggestion of who this money should be donated to. We will shortly be donating £15,000 to the Rennie Grove Hospice.

This year’s chosen Charity of the Year is the Anne Robson Trust. Austin’s look forward to raising funds for this wonderful charity and another 20 years of fundraising, because, in the words of Helen Keller, “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

No one deserves to die alone: The Anne Robson Trust is our 2022 Charity of the Year

February 19th, 2022    Author:

We’re delighted to announce that our 2022 Charity of the Year is the Anne Robson Trust; a cause close to our own hearts. Since the Austin’s charitable fund was set up by the Austin family in 2002, we have raised over £236,676 for charities. These funds help them to continue to do the amazing work that benefits so many of us day to day, usually when we least expect it.

The Anne Robson Trust works to support people facing the end of life, whether their own or that of someone dear to them. They believe that everyone should have the comfort and companionship of another human being as they die, as well as the support to prepare for the end of life. This is something that has very much come under the spotlight during the pandemic and that we at Austin’s passionately advocate.

The charity was set up in 2018 by Chief Executive Liz Pryor MBE, in memory of – and named after – her mother, Anne Robson. In January 2010, Liz’s mother was rushed to hospital from her care home in Suffolk with a suspected broken hip. She was discharged a week later and died a matter of hours after arriving home. Liz was not aware that her mother was dying and this heartbreaking experience was the springboard for her to start working in and around the NHS. A few years later Liz set up the Anne Robson Trust with the aim of improving care for the elderly and those alone at the end of their life.

Fast forward to January this year and Liz was awarded an MBE in the Queens 2021 New Year’s Honour’s list for services to end-of-life care. Becoming Austin’s Charity of the Year has been the cherry on top of the start to 2022.

Liz said: “We feel honoured to have been chosen as Austin’s Charity of the Year 2022. We are hugely grateful to everyone at Austins for helping The Anne Robson Trust raise awareness of our vital services for people approaching the end of their life, along with their family and loved ones. As a small charity, your support will go a long way in helping us reach the people who need us most. Thank you.

The Anne Robson Trust Helpline is staffed by specially-trained volunteers. It was set up in March 2021 and at Christmas last year they unveiled their first ever Christmas Appeal, #TimeToTalk, to help spread awareness of the helpline after seeing calls triple over the past six months. To give you an idea of where the money raised for the Trust could be used, it costs £20 to fund a helpline volunteer for one hour of support and £100 to recruit and train a volunteer to support anyone nearing the end of their life, their family, carers, friends, or colleagues.

Alongside their helpline, the charity does a lot of good work in hospitals to set up and run teams of ‘End of Life Volunteers’ to provide bedside companionship to patients in the final days and hours of their life, and emotional support to the patients’ visitors.

Liz is very passionate about the importance of talking about death. She says: “It’s inevitable that we are all going to die one day, and the pandemic has forced us all to consider our own mortality. Most people naturally shy away from conversations about the end of life, but we know that making simple plans, and sharing them with loved ones, can really help…”

We couldn’t agree more and regularly talk on this blog about preparing for and talking about our own passing with our families and close friends.

 To find out more about the Anne Robson Trust, visit: You can reach their helpline on 0808 801 0688.

A little canine comfort

January 25th, 2022    Author:

As you have probably seen on social media, pet therapy is becoming increasingly common in care homes, hospitals, schools and even universities around the UK. Just last week the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met adorable therapy puppy, Alfie the Cockapoo, at a Lancashire hospital.

Pet therapy, sometimes called animal assisted therapy (AAT), is the interaction between a person and a trained animal and their handler, to improve their mood and wellbeing. The majority of therapy animals are dogs or cats, but Shetland ponies, alpacas and even lambs can provide pet therapy as long as they are calm and friendly and can interact with people who may not be used to being around animals.

We’re lucky here in the UK to have Pets As Therapy (PAT), a national charity that enhances the health and wellbeing of thousands of people in communities across the UK. They strive to ensure that everyone, no matter their circumstances, has access to the companionship of an animal.

We can feel all sorts of emotion when a loved one passes away; sadness, emptiness, anxiety, and grief-therapy dogs can really help bereaved people feel companionship after the loss.

This is why in America funeral therapy dogs have become pretty popular. According to a National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) survey in America, more than half of survey participants said they would either be somewhat, very or extremely interested in having a therapy dog at a funeral or memorial service. Take Norbert the Dog, for example. At just seven inches tall and fluffy as they come, he’s become world famous after having a book published about him!

The first known funeral therapy dog here in the UK is Basil the Beagle, who started his new job with a funeral home back in 2018. His owners say that Basil loves people and adores children, which makes him perfect for the job. Basil can go with people into the Chapel of Rest at the funeral home, sit with them when they’re making the funeral arrangements and even accompany them at the funeral itself. They say that 90% of their customers want Basil there at some stage of the funeral planning, and added that he also gives them something else to talk about when it seems that life has taken a complete turn.

Therapy dogs can help people open up about their feelings; people can talk to them rather than friends or family. This is especially important for grieving children who may not be comfortable talking about their feelings with adults. They can also help people nervous about attending a funeral to gain confidence.

They have the innate ability to sense our emotional needs and act on them with unconditional love, making them the perfect companion to help ease anxiety and confusion of death. One funeral director in Michigan recounted an experience at his funeral home:

“A young mother died unexpectedly, leaving several children, including a teenage daughter, behind. The daughter was sitting in our lobby, crying uncontrollably. Lola, our therapy dog, knew she needed comfort, so she climbed up on the couch and lay right next to the emotional daughter. The girl soon began stroking Lola’s soft coat and stopped crying. Lola helped ease her burden, if only for a moment.”

And there is some science to all of this. Not only do therapy dogs provide comfort, they also help improve overall mental and physical health. Petting a therapy dog increases serotonin and dopamine levels in our brain, which improves our mood by lowering stress, anxiety, and depression. Petting a therapy dog also lowers blood pressure and helps those who are feeling lonely.

Brian Hare, director of Duke University Canine Cognition Centre, says the human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs have been drawn to people since humans began to exist in settlements and are the only species not to show fear of strangers. In fact, Hare says that dogs are “actually xenophilic – they love strangers!”

 Sometimes we take the loyalty of dogs for granted, but we should always remember what wonderful therapy they can bring through many of the stages, and changes, in our lives. As Mark Twain once said: “When was the last time someone was so overjoyed to see you, so brimming with love, that they literally ran to greet you?”