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How cremation became the way to go

Cremations used to face strong opposition from church and state

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.

1874: Cremation Society formed
1885: Jeanette Pickersgill is first person to be officially cremated
1902: Laws passed governing cremations
1930: New Cremation Regulations issued, still in force
2007: 72% of bodies cremated

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.

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.

There are far fewer cremations in Northern Ireland than England

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.

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.

A selection of your comments appears below.

My husband died at the age of 53 and was cremated. I have always had a fear of someone waking from the dead and being trapped. Cremation is final and I have a plot at the church where for the last 15 years I have visited every two weeks to put flowers down and clean the stone. Your body is really a tent in which you camp and its your spirit that lives on. I still feel my husband knows what is going on and is looking after us all. In a nutshell I know where his remains are but I think he is still with us and not laying somewhere decomposing.
Pat Edwards, Fleet

I personally do not think that we have any choice but to dispose of the dead by cremation. If we were to continue burying bodies, we will soon run out of space. There is also the issue of untended graves where the deceased relatives move away from the area or do not care to look after the grave.
Lady Pamela, Gravesend, Kent, UK

While I have no objection to open-air burnings if that's what people want, I prefer the idea of woodland burial in a cardboard coffin. Recycling by bugs must be better for the environment. Also, we'd have to preserve the woodland.
Joya Ghose, Jersey, UK

Actually, even Greece has now had to accept cremation, despite objections from the Church. It's still not commonplace and the bureaucracy involved is daunting, but it's getting there.
NvW, Athens, Greece

According to an eye witness who gave me an account of the event, Dr Price made a fire on top of the mountain, Llantrissant, and took his baby there and burnt him. According to my father born Llantrissant 1906, there was a second son Jesus Christ II. The citizens were very shocked and Dr Price was locked up in Cardiff Castle for his own safety, there was a lynch mob outside. He was taken to Liverpool for trial as no trial could be held in Wales. He was acquitted on all charges except the wrongful disposal of a body. The BBC made a programme about the event but did not interview an eye witness of which there were very few. Today in the Bull Ring Llantrissant there is a fine statue to Dr Price .According to legend Dr Price had a pet bull that went everywhere with him called Morgan but perhaps that is egging the pudding!
David Morgan-Davies, St Germain de Clairefeuille, France

Cremation is part of a culture like for Indian people it is the right way. I am a Catholic and basically not against cremation as I do believe in the resurrection of my soul (my unique spirit and being), but out of my own experience I can tell that a traditional burial helps mourners much better to come to terms with the loss of a beloved one for the longer let-go process. It is a psychological and very individual matter.
Ursula F Rasswallner, Vienna

If you insist on being buried in a time when pressures on land are being forever squeezed you should be aware of the chances of getting a car park or a housing estate built on you are always increasing. Why not get cremated and scatter you ashes wherever your [probably grown up] children live. That way you know they will visit you .
Steve Stamakis, UK

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