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More information: a brief history of cremation in the UK

Modern day interest in cremation really started in the 1870s. The latter half of the ninteenth century was characterised by growing alarm about the effects of the industrial revolution on health, sanitation and overcrowding and this included the problem of overcrowded cemeteries. In 1874 Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, visited Italy and saw a demonstration of equipment used for carrying out cremations. He was very impressed by the demonstration and, on his return home, invited some like-minded friends to form the Cremation Society of England. The purpose of this body was to promote the use of cremation as an alternative to burial.

The Society bought some land next to the cemetery in Woking with the intention of building a crematorium on the site but local opposition meant they had to halt work. For the next few years they concentrated on persuading people of the benefits of cremation. However, an event that took place in 1884 changed the situation forever.

In that year Dr William Price of Llantrisant, an eccentric doctor who claimed to be the Arch druid of a lost Celtic tribe, cremated his son, Jesus Christ, who had died aged only five months, on the local hillside. Price was prosecuted but was found not guilty. This ruling effectively made cremation legal.

The following year, 1885, saw the first official cremation take place when Mrs Pickersgill was cremated at Woking. Slowly, very slowly, the amount of cremations taking place started to increase. Ten cremations took place in 1886 and twenty eight took place in 1888.

The last decade of the ninteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century saw further expansion of the cremation movement. In 1892 another crematorium opened in Manchester, followed by one in Glasgow in 1895 and one in Liverpool in 1896. In 1901 the first municipal crematorium opened in Hull and in 1902 the world-famous Golders Green crematorium opened. Another advance was made in 1910 when the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey insisted that Joseph Hooker was cremated before being interred - a ruling that is still in force today. Cremation was slowly becoming more acceptable.

 

 

Montage of images showing an early Crematorium Society publication, an article in Pharos and a photograh of Mortlake Crematorium.

Montage of images showing an early Cremation Society publication, an article in Pharos and a photograph of Mortlake Crematorium.

 

 

Two images of Dr William Price in ceremonial dress

Two images of Dr William Price in ceremonial dress.

The period after 1910 saw continued growth. The number of people choosing to be cremated started to creep into the hundreds and then the thousands. The move to make cremation acceptable was also given a considerable boost by the number of high-profile people who had made the decision to be cremated. In 1917 the first member of the Royal family, the Duchess of Connaught, was cremated and the inter-war period witnessed the cremations of other well-known figures such as Ramsay Macdonald, Austin Chamberlain, Philip Snowden and Neville Chamberlain. In 1944 a major breakthrough in terms of respectability and acceptability was made when Dr William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury chose to be cremated. His successor, Lord Lang, who died two years later also chose to be cremated.

The Cremation Society also continued to develop and expand in this period. Its membership and constituency grew and its work in promoting cremation continued. As part of its attempts to appeal to a wider audience it established a quarterly newsletter in 1934 called Pharos, which is still in existence today. The Society also fostered links with other groups abroad further promoting the cause of Cremation.

However, perhaps the biggest breakthrough in this period took place in 1963 when the Pope proclaimed that it was no longer illegal for Roman Catholics to be cremated. This was followed three years later by a ruling which allowed Roman Catholic priests to conduct services in crematoriums. Although they did not immediately open the floodgates, these were crucial factors in ensuring that cremation became an acceptable practice.

By the early twenty-first century there can be little doubt that cremation had become acceptable to the majority of people living in the UK. There are now 245 crematoriums in existence and over 70% of people choose to be cremated after they die.

 

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