Cremation is now the most popular type of funeral in the UK. By 2007, 72% of funerals in the UK were cremations. However, this has not always been the case.
Although humans have practised cremation for millennia, the advent of Christianity and the influence of the church in Britain stopped it happening here for hundreds of years. This was because the church rejected it, believing it to be pagan and a practice which would make the resurrection of the body impossible.
However, by the latter part of the 19th century, demands for cremation in the UK’s cities began to grow on the grounds of hygiene and cost. Victorian funerals were expensive and elaborate affairs and involved a large amount of pomp and ceremony. People could often not afford what was expected of them. On top of that, the burial grounds of Britain’s largest cities during the Industrial Revolution were becoming overcrowded as the population rose; it was seen as a potential health hazard. As a result, the Cremation Society was formed in 1874 in London by Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria. This was a secular society, which campaigned for cremation to be allowed in the UK.
In 1878 the Cremation Society built the UK’s first crematorium on a piece of land it had purchased near Woking in Surrey and in 1879 carried out a successful cremation on the body of a horse. Locals complained however and they were banned from using the crematorium by the Home Secretary, on the grounds that it could be used to destroy a body that was evidence of murder.
This was only a temporary setback. A major development happened in 1884 when an 83 year old druid, Dr William Price, burnt the body of a five day old child that he had fathered with his housekeeper on a funeral pyre at the back of his house. Although he was arrested and tried, the judge ruled that cremation was not illegal as long as a nuisance was not caused.
Despite a Parliamentary Bill legalising cremation being rejected in 1884, the first official cremation of a human, Jeannette Pickersgill, was carried out at the crematorium in Woking in March 1885. Cremation finally became law in 1902, but by then there were crematoria in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Hull, and Golders Green.
Opposition to cremation still lingered in a country that was largely Christian until the First World War, when the huge number of deaths on the continent started to change people’s attitudes to death. In 1917 Princess Louise, the Duchess of Connaught, became the first member of the Royal Family to be cremated and, in the interwar period, former Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain chose to be cremated, showing it was now accepted by the establishment. In 1944, Dr William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was cremated, as was his predecessor Cosmo Lang two years later, thus showing members of the Anglican faith that the practice was now acceptable.
In 1930, new Cremation Regulations were issued and these are still largely in place today. At this point, cremations accounted for less than 5% of all funerals. Cremations became more popular in the 1950s and 1960s and a major change came in 1963, when the Pope lifted a ban on Roman Catholics seeking cremations. Three years later, Roman Catholic priests were allowed to conduct services in crematoria and, in 1968, the number of cremations in the UK exceeded the number of burials for the first time. Since then, the number of people choosing cremation has steadily grown, with around three out of four people now opting to be cremated.
For more information about how funerals have changed in the UK over time, please click here to read our guide to funeral trends.