A brief history of cremations in the UK

- 29/10/21

For most of us, cremation is the go-to choice when deciding what kind of funeral should be held after a death[1]. However, despite its popularity today, the history of cremations in the UK has had its fair share of ups and downs.

Although the practice of cremation has actually been around for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that cremation returned to the United Kingdom.

When Did Cremations Start in the UK?

Due to its popularity, the idea of cremation is often taken for granted in the UK. Today, the idea of a cremation is perfectly normal. However, up until 150 years ago, nearly all funerals in the UK were burials, and there certainly weren’t any dedicated cremation facilities.

Although ancient civilisations practised cremation widely, the dominance of Christianity on the British Isles meant cremation all but disappeared from British society around the 5th Century. This rejection of cremation was centred on the belief in resurrection, something that was seen as impossible if a person’s body had been cremated.

The revived interest in cremations only came about as a result of Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, writing a paper in support of the practice in 1874. In his paper, Thompson cited the ‘sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease’ as the main benefit of as well as reducing funeral expenses and sparing mourners from ‘the ill effects of bad weather during internment’[2].

This paper came as a shock to many and proved to be highly controversial. However, he did receive some level of public support and ended up founding The Cremation Society of England.

Over the next five years, this newly founded society purchased land from the London Necropolis Company and set about building Britain’s first purpose-built crematorium. The site was situated right next to Woking cemetery and benefited from being on the same train line as services used to ferry the dead out of London.

The first furnace at the site was operational by 1879 but faced strong backlash from local residents who still rejected the idea of cremation. This led politicians to get involved with the Home Secretary, decreeing that cremations could not take place without Parliament’s approval.

Despite campaigns to change public opinion, these legal issues lasted for a further five years. However, in 1884 the government altered its stance and legalised the practice.

With this, the first cremation was carried out at Woking crematorium in March 1885 and Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill, a well-known figure in Victorian literary and scientific circles, became the first person to be legally cremated in modern Britain.

Cremations Increased Popularity

In its first year of operation, The Cremation Society’s Woking venue performed a grand total of three cremations, though this soon increased to 99 the next year. By 1892, the need for a second location was becoming apparent.

Moving into the 20th century, four crematoria were now in operation throughout the country to support the increasing need of roughly 400 cremations a year.

Within a further 50 years, that number had jumped to over 90,000, with close to 60 operational crematoria. At the time, these 90,000 cremations represented just 15% of all funerals.

Although cremations continued to steadily grow in population between the 1900s and 1950s, by the 1980s interest soared to 65% of all funerals. And by the turn of the millennium, more than 70% were cremations, with 242 crematoria in operation.

Today, there are nearly 300 crematoriums across the country, completing nearly 75% of all funerals. The simplicity and low costs compared to traditional burials have helped to make cremation the funeral of choice for most Brits. Even more so with the rise of direct cremations, making cremations better value than ever.

At Distinct Cremations, we offer a range of direct cremation and funeral plan packages to suit all needs and a wide range of budgets.

Request a callback to find out more about our cremation funerals and prepaid funeral plans today.

Sources:

  1. SunLife (2021)
  2. The Cremation Society (2021)

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