The start of a new way to end: Cremation

Author: Oliver Hawkins

We present another in our continuing series of extracts from an upcoming book, Olympic Britain, showing through statistics the changing face of Britain since the previous London Olympics of 1908 and 1948. Today, Oliver Hawkins takes a look at cremation.

Cremation is now the most widely practised funeral ceremony in the UK, but it didn’t become socially acceptable until the 20th century. Before 1884, it wasn’t even considered legal.

Although cremation has been practised for centuries in other parts of the world, the Christian belief in physical resurrection made cremation a taboo in many European societies.

The first prominent advocate of cremation in Britain was Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria. He had seen a model cremation apparatus at the Vienna Exposition of 1873 and believed it offered a way to help reduce “the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied”. In 1874 he founded the Cremation Society of England, which argued for cremation to be formally accepted in law. The Society also built Britain’s first crematorium in Woking in Surrey in 1878.

The crematorium was first used in 1879 to burn the body of a horse, but the incident so upset the local community they appealed to the Home Secretary to intervene. Concerned that cremation might be used to destroy evidence of violence or poisoning following a murder, the then Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, refused to allow the practice until it was explicitly recognised by Parliament.

The turning point for cremation came in 1884 when 83 year-old William Price was arrested for attempting to cremate the body of his infant son Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ in English). Price was a physician, a nudist, a vegetarian, and an Archdruid. He disapproved of burial and attempted to cremate the body of his son on a hillside near the village of Llantrisant in South Wales. The villagers intervened and he was put on trial at the South Glamorgan Assizes in Cardiff. Price argued that although cremation wasn’t permitted in law, it wasn’t prohibited either. The judge, Mr Justice Stephen, agreed.

Following the judgment, the first official cremation took place at Woking Crematorium on the 26th of March 1885. Mrs Jeannette Pickersgill was the first of three cremations that year.

In 1902 a new Act of Parliament gave the Home Secretary the power to regulate cremation. In that year, less than 0.1% of all deaths led to a cremation. By 2010, cremations comprised 73% of all deaths.

A burning sensation: The chart shows the number of cremations and other deaths in the UK.

A burning sensation: The chart shows the number of cremations and other deaths in the UK.

This article is taken from Olympic Britain, a forthcoming book from the House of Commons Library. It tells the story of the profound economic and social change in the UK since the two previous London Olympics, in 1908 and 1948, using statistics and expert analysis. It will be published on 9 July and digital copies will be freely available on the Parliament website.

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