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 www.crematorium.co.uk