A Short History of Modern Cremation in the United Kingdom and Ireland

Modern cremation, as we know it, began almost one hundred and fifty years ago when Professor Brunetti of Padua, Italy, displayed his cremation apparatus at the 1873 Vienna Exposition along with the resulting ashes. The exhibit sign read “Vermibus erepti—Puro consumimur igni” or “Saved from the worms, consumed by the purifying flame.”

The cremation apparatus attracted great attention, including that of Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir Henry Thompson, who wrote a paper called The Treatment of the Body after Death, which was published in the Contemporary Review of January 1874. His principal argument was a sanitary one as many graveyards were overcrowded, but he also believed cremation would prevent premature burial, reduce the expense of funerals and spare mourners the necessity of standing exposed to the weather during interment.

Philip Holland, the Medical Inspector of Burials for England and Wales, opposed cremation as not being a sanitary necessity, which prompted a second, more powerful paper from Sir Henry. The resulting debate in the press led Sir Henry and several friends to found the Cremation Society of England in 1874.

Sir Henry Thompson

The Society established the United Kingdom’s first crematorium at Woking in Surrey, England, on an acre of land purchased by Sir Henry with the aid of subscriptions of £200 each from the London Necropolis Company who had founded the nearby Brookwood Cemetery. The cremator was constructed by Professor Paolo Gorini of Lodi, Italy and was not initially enclosed in a building but stood in the grounds.

The Graphic, Saturday 07 December 1889

The new cremator was first tested on 17 March 1879, when the body of a horse was cremated. The inhabitants of Woking were strongly opposed to the crematorium and led by the vicar, appealed to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, to prohibit its use. With the threat of legal or parliamentary proceedings against them, the Society was forced to abandon further experiments.

In 1884, the Welsh Neo-Druidic priest William Price was arrested and put on trial for attempting to cremate his infant son’s body. Price argued in court that while the law did not state cremation was legal, it also did not state it was illegal and the judge, Mr Justice Stephen, agreed. As a result, the Cremation Society informed the public it was now prepared to proceed with the cremation of anyone requesting it.

William Price

Strict conditions had to be observed before a body would be accepted for cremation at Woking and in the appendix to his book Modern Cremation, Sir Henry published the forms which the Cremation Society required. These conditions, designed to prevent the destruction of a body which may have met death illegally, continued for many years to be the only form of certification for cremation. 

On 26 March 1885, the first official cremation in the UK took place in Woking. The deceased was Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill, whom the newspapers described as “well-known in literary and scientific circles”. By the end of the year, the Cremation Society of Great Britain had overseen two more cremations, 3 out of 597,357 deaths in the UK that year. In 1886, ten bodies were cremated.

The Globe, Friday 27 March 1885

During 1888, in which 28 cremations took place, the Cremation Society issued an appeal to the public for funds to build a chapel, waiting rooms and other amenities at the Woking Crematorium. The subscription list was headed by the dukes of Bedford and Westminster but the appeal only raised £1,500, which was less than was needed. The Duke of Bedford stepped in, making it possible to not only provide the buildings, but to purchase additional ground next to the crematorium. The buildings were constructed in English thirteenth-century Gothic style and were available for use at the start of January 1891. The churchlike appearance was intended to make the buildings look reassuring to the public at a time when cremation was an alien custom.

The Graphic, Saturday 07 December 1889

After Woking Crematorium, crematoria were established in other cities with the Manchester Crematorium opening in 1892, Glasgow Crematorium in 1895, Liverpool Crematorium in 1896 and Darlington and Hull Crematoria in 1901. Golders Green Crematorium opened in 1902 and Birmingham Crematorium opened in 1903.

The William Price case’s legal precedent led to the Cremation Act of 1902, which allowed local authorities to establish crematoria, but the Act did not apply to Ireland.

Today, cremation accounts for approximately 78% of all funerals in the United Kingdom.

In Ireland, a country with a history steeped in ties to the Catholic Church, burial is still the most common way of laying the deceased to rest because of the belief in the body’s resurrection after death. In July 1963, however, the Pope proclaimed it legal within the Catholic Church to seek cremation, but it was not until 1966 that the ban on priests conducting services in crematoria was lifted. Despite this, cremation only accounts for 21.16% of Irish funerals but this is changing, especially in cities because of the high cost of burial plots and the pandemic.

The first crematorium on the island of Ireland was opened at Roselawn Cemetery in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 10th May 1961. Compared to the rest of the UK, the cremation rate of 21.8% for Northern Ireland is low because of a continuing preference for burial and there only being one crematorium for a population of approximately 1.8 million people.

In the Republic of Ireland, there are seven crematoria serving a population of close to 5 million people. Glasnevin Crematorium, Dublin was the first to open in March 1982. Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin opened its crematorium in 2000 and Newlands Cross Crematorium, Dublin opened in 2001. The Island Crematorium in Co Cork was opened on 30 March 2007 and crematoria were opened in Co Cavan in July 2015, in Dublin’s Dardistown in October 2016 and in Shannon, Co Clare in 2017.

Dublin, Ireland, July 1887. The city is struggling in a seemingly never-ending heatwave and Will receives devastating news from his father. John has only months to live but his dying wishes leave Will reeling. With the Fitzgeralds suddenly facing money worries, some difficult decisions must be made. Can Will and John repair their complicated relationship before it’s too late?

When a tragic accident brings unexpected truths to light, Isobel discovers a forgotten life intertwined with her grandmother’s. Nothing can prepare her for Lily’s story but will learning of their families’ pasts bring Isobel peace or further heartbreak?

Read an excerpt from Chapter One…

Dublin, Ireland. Friday, 1st July 1887.

Will saw his last patient out of the surgery, then returned to the chair behind his desk. Reaching for a notepad, he sat back, closing his eyes and fanned himself with it. Dublin was entering its second month of heat and drought and the city and its inhabitants stank. Hearing a quick knock, he opened his eyes and sat bolt upright as the door opened and his father looked in at him.

“May I come in? Eva told me surgery is over.”

“Yes, of course.” Will pointed to the chair in front of the desk and his father closed the door and sat down. “Is there any sign of the weather breaking?”

“Not yet. How are you coping?”

“Badly,” he admitted, pointing to a jug of lemonade with three-quarters gone from it before fanning his face again. “Did you brave the heat to catch a glimpse of Prince Albert Victor and Prince George?”

“No, but I overheard your mother telling Tess that she and Harriett went to Trinity College yesterday to see them. Harriett thought Prince Albert Victor was ‘shifty looking’ and wholly undeserving of an honorary degree.”

Will smiled. “He was probably bored stiff and cursing his grandmother for not coming here herself to mark her golden jubilee.”

“The Queen would have fainted in this heat. Can you imagine the furore at Her Majesty being carried away on a stretcher – and it happening in Dublin?”

“Careful, Father, you almost sound like a Parnellite,” Will teased and his father shrugged.

“Edward died a major in Victoria’s army – and for what?” he demanded, startling Will. “Tell me, Will, what did your brother’s death achieve? It achieved nothing. Edward died a horrible death in a country thousands of miles from here – and for nothing – it—”

His father broke off, panting hard, and Will quickly reached for the jug of lemonade and poured some into the glass he had used.

“Drink this,” he said quietly, putting the glass on the desk in front of his father. “And tell me what’s wrong.” His father sipped the lemonade and Will took the glass from him. “Well?” he prompted and his father inhaled and exhaled a deep breath.

“Over the past year, I haven’t been myself – fatigue and lower back pain – which I attributed to my age. Then, over the past few months, I developed a frequent urge to urinate, but I had great difficulty in actually urinating,” he continued and Will’s heart pounded uncomfortably. “My bowel movements have become increasingly uncomfortable and my appetite has declined rapidly. On my last visit to Greene Hall, I called to Dr Bourke in Westport and I asked him to examine me to allay my suspicions. My prostate is enlarged and Dr Bourke could feel a large mass that has extended into my anus and given my lower back pain, into my bones, too. Will, I have prostate cancer and sooner rather than later, it is going to kill me.”

Will couldn’t speak and his father reached for the jug of lemonade and poured some into the glass.

“Drink this,” his father said, pushing the glass across the desk. “And then I’ll share my plans with you.”

Will had to clasp the glass with both hands, which shook as he drank and some lemonade slopped onto the desk. “Who else knows?” he whispered, putting the glass down, then pulling his handkerchief out of a trouser pocket and mopping up the spillage.

“No one. But soon, your mother will have to be told, as I shall have to move into one of the guest bedrooms. I don’t want my doctor to wonder why my bed is in what was the dining room.”

“Your doctor? But I am—”

“No, Will, I cannot ask it of you.”

“Yes, you can.” Will thumped a fist on the desk. “I am your son and—” He broke off and grimaced. To add, ‘you should have come to me first with your suspicions’ was pointless now. “I am your doctor and I will tend to you and that is final,” he continued, struggling to keep his voice steady.

“Thank you, Will. But I shall have to move into a guest bedroom all the same as I will receive callers while I am still able. Jim Harvey for one,” he added, rolling his eyes and Will almost smiled.

“Would you like me to be present when you tell Mother?” he asked. “Or Isobel? Or both of us?”

“Isobel,” his father mused. “Yes, of course, you will tell Isobel at once – you tell her everything – but no one else, do you hear me? I have spoken to John Dalton, but I will break the news to others in my own good time.”

“Very well.”

“I would be most grateful if you could both be present. Do you have any plans for this evening?”

“We have no plans and Isobel and I can be at number 67 at eight o’clock,” he said and his father nodded. “Can I suggest that you also tell Harriett as soon as possible? Mother will need someone to confide in and with Harriett being next door..?”

“You’re right. Like Isobel, Harriett is a practical woman and she will persuade her friends and acquaintances that my plans were not those of a man of unsound mind.”

“Your plans?”

“My will does not need updating but as I said, I have spoken to John Dalton and I have planned my funeral, written the death notice for The Irish Times and a short obituary for the Journal of Irish Medicine and it will also be published in The Irish Times.”

“May I write your eulogy or have you written it, too?” Will asked dryly, scarcely believing he was making light of the subject.

“You wrote a wonderful eulogy for Fred so I can trust you to write one as equally affecting for me.”

“There is something else, isn’t there?”

“I have chosen my coffin and I apologise in advance, as it is not oak like that which Isobel’s grandmother was buried in, but a very fine elm one.”

Will waved a hand dismissively and waited for his father to continue.

“I chose it mostly for show as I must have a grand funeral and your mother must be seen to ‘mourn’ for me. However, it is what happens afterwards which preyed on my mind.”

“Have you chosen a headstone?”

“I have, but it is my burial, which initially had me in a quandary.”

“Why?”

“Maria was the love of my life,” his father replied matter-of-factly, and Will’s gut twisted painfully. “And I wanted to be buried with her. But I have been married to your mother for forty-two years and she bore me two wonderful sons so I also wanted to be buried in a separate grave so she can eventually be buried with me – unless, of course, she chooses not to be – or she remarries. I simply did not know how it could be done until I read a piece in a periodical concerning cremation.”

“Cremation?” Will’s jaw dropped.

“I shall be cremated,” his father announced. “I have discussed it with John and after my funeral, instead of the hearse taking me to Mount Jerome Cemetery, it will take me to the North Wall Quay passenger terminus. I shall set sail for Holyhead on the express night service, then travel in the train’s guard’s van to London and from London to Woking Crematorium in Surrey. My ashes will be posted to John and he will pass them on to you and I would like you to divide them and bury half with Maria and the remaining half in the new grave I have purchased. I know it is a lot to take in,” he added as Will simply stared at him in consternation, “so I have written it all down for you.” Extracting an envelope from the inside pocket of his frock coat, he put it on the desk in front of Will.

“How on earth are you going to explain this to Mother?”

“Your mother is a clever woman. She will know exactly why I have chosen to be cremated. I simply hope her anger will be cooled a little by the realisation that soon she will be free of me at long last.”

“Christ Almighty, Father.” Will got up from his chair so suddenly it fell over backwards and he walked to the window. “How can you be so calm?”

“I am anything but calm. I have spent the greater portion of my life deceiving my wife, my sons and everyone I know, so I am an expert at putting on an act. Inside, I am terrified. Soon, I will be unable to walk, unable to eat and unable to defecate. Mine will be a horrible death and despite you being an excellent doctor, you will not be able to do anything to prevent it.”  

Will clenched his fists, but his father was right.

“When will you retire from the Journal?” he asked, turning to face him.

“As soon as a replacement editor is found. I wrote my letter of resignation this morning and I have just posted it.”

“I’ll walk with you until you hail a cab, and please give my regards to Dr Smythe.”

“There is no need. I shall take my time, but I shall pass on your regards. I certainly did not expect to outlive Jacob Smythe, but physically, he is as fit as a fiddle and he eats like a horse. Miss Gamal is an excellent cook but I now struggle to clear my plate so, except for Fridays, I lunch at the Trinity Club. My lack of appetite is never commented on there and when I return home, I simply lie to Tess or Maura and say I have already eaten an enormous meal and ask for a small portion of dinner.”

“You and I must speak to Mrs Rogers and devise a menu for you of small but nourishing meals,” he said, and his father nodded before getting up from his seat.

“I feel a great relief at having told you, but I am dreading telling your mother.”

“Isobel and I will be with you. And afterwards, I want to examine you.”

“Thank you, Will. Don’t lose that.” His father pointed to the envelope on the desk, then went to the door. “I don’t want to write it all out again.”

“I won’t lose it,” Will replied, and his father gave him a brief smile.

“Good. I simply want to ensure my death is no more than a slight inconvenience and my cremation, but a minor detail.”

His father left the surgery, and Will walked to the desk on shaky legs. Extracting a bunch of keys from his medical bag, he went to the door and locked it. Returning to the desk, he righted the chair, sat down, and wept.

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