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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.