How cremation became the way to go

First published by BBC News.

As the High Court prepares to rule on the legality of open-air funeral pyres, Nick Serpell, a former tour guide at London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, recalls the troubled history of cremations in the UK.

The practice of disposing of bodies by burning is almost as old as the human race itself and has been practised by many civilisations.

Cremated remains found in Australia in 1969 are estimated to be at least 20,000 years old, with the bones bearing the signs of an elaborate ritual, possibly in an attempt by relatives to prevent the deceased’s spirit coming back to haunt them.

It was the Egyptians who began to popularise the custom of preserving the body after death and the use of stone coffins became common in the early Roman Empire long before the coming of Christianity. Early Christians, influenced by the New Testament account that the body of Christ was entombed according to Jewish rites, rejected cremation as a hangover from pagan times.

It also conflicted with the Christian belief in the Resurrection and the feeling that you should present yourself before your maker as an entire body rather than a pile of burnt bone fragments.

By the time Christianity had spread across Western Europe, the practice of cremation, frowned on by an all-powerful church, had all but disappeared.

Cremations used to face strong opposition from church and state

The revival began in the early 19th Century. Some British officials in India campaigned for crematoria to be built to stop the Hindu custom of burning bodies in the open air.

Various proposals were put forward in the UK in favour of cremation but no progress was made in the face of opposition from both church and government.

‘Heathen practice’

It was not until 1874 that the Cremation Society, a secular organisation, was formed in London to campaign for cremation, mainly on the grounds of hygiene and cost.

The appalling conditions in many of the overcrowded burial grounds of Britain’s major cities, together with the mounting costs of the pomp and ceremony of Victorian funerals, attracted people to a cheaper and cleaner alternative. Cremations in closed furnaces had already taken place in Germany but a number of bishops in Britain attacked what they called “a heathen practice.”

The breakthrough for the pro-cremation lobby came through the unlikely figure of a druid

Despite the opposition, the Cremation Society bought land near Woking in Surrey where it built its first crematorium in 1878, successfully testing the furnace on the body of a horse.

It was to be the last cremation for some time. Local inhabitants protested to the home secretary, who banned the use of the new building on the grounds that cremation could be used to destroy evidence of murder before a body could be properly examined.

The breakthrough for the pro-cremation lobby came through the unlikely figure of a druid who was also a strict vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and advocate of free love.

At the age of 83 Dr William Price, who practised medicine in Glamorgan, fathered a child from his housekeeper, naming the boy Jesus Christ Price.

The child lived just five days and, in true druidical custom, Dr Price constructed a pyre at the rear of his house, donned his robes and burned the body.

WWI effect

The act horrified the good chapel-going population of his village and Dr Price was arrested and subsequently tried at Cardiff Assizes before Sir James Stephen.

The judgement, that cremation was not illegal provided that no nuisance was caused, opened the way for cremation to become enshrined in law although there was still much opposition to overcome. A Parliamentary Bill to put the practice into law was thrown out in 1884 amid government fears it would upset voters although the first cremation at Woking, that of Jeannette Pickersgill, went ahead in March 1885.

It was not until 1902 that a new Act of Parliament finally gave the home secretary power to regulate the practice of cremation and, after 28 years campaigning, cremation was finally on the statute books.

By this time a number of crematoria had opened including Manchester, Glasgow, Hull and Liverpool and, in the same year the Act was passed, Golders Green crematorium opened in North London.

There are far fewer cremations in Northern Ireland than England

Resistance to cremation still remained amongst the majority of the population but the mass slaughter of the First World War began to change people’s social views.

However, even by 1930, when the new Cremation Regulations were issued, still in force with minor changes today, less than 5% of funerals ended in cremation.

Its popularity increased steadily throughout the 1950s and 30 crematoria opened in the first two years of the 1960s, including the first on the island of Ireland, in Belfast.

In 1963 the Pope finally lifted the ban on Roman Catholics seeking cremation and today in the UK only a few religious groups, including Muslims, Orthodox Jews and the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, still actively oppose cremation.

The figures for 2007 show that 72% of deaths in the UK ended in cremation although it is much more popular in England and Wales (75%) than in Scotland (34%) or Northern Ireland (17%). With a growing population and increasing pressure on land space it looks likely that the days of the huge cemeteries will finally come to an end, much to the regret of social historians and genealogists.

Source: First published by BBC News

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