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Committed to the Cleansing Flame: The development of cremation in nineteenth-century England

02 November 2006


Though I give my body to be burned: Julian Litten considers the contested moves towards cremation

Spire Books £34.95
Church Times Bookshop £31.45

 HIGH on the east wall of the Pigott transeptial pew in St Nicholas’s, Brockley, in Somerset, is a small mural monument to "J. P. 1811". A cryptic inscription in Latin and Greek indicates that he was the youngest son of another J. P. (probably John Pigott, brother of the Revd Wadham Pigott of Brockley), and states that "he wished his body to be burnt according to the ancient custom, so that it should not be offensive to the living." Precisely where this process took place is not recorded.

About 500,000 people die each year in Great Britain, and of this total about 350,000 select cremation as their means of disposal. This is an amazingly high percentage, since cremation has been regularised only since 1902. It was never illegal, as such — as the late-19th-century advocates of the process pointed out — but it needed to be adopted on a legal footing, so as to make it more palatable to the nation as a whole.

A history of the beginnings of the cremation movement in England has long awaited an author, and it could not have had a better one than Brian Parsons.

In six extensively illustrated chapters, Dr Parsons outlines the establishment of the Cremation Society of Great Britain in 1874, the arrangements for early cremations, and the progress of the movement up to the Cremation Act in 1902.

It was not until 1885 that the Cremation Society of Great Britain performed its first cremation. Its early efforts to persuade cemeteries in Greater London to construct crematoria failed; so it acquired an acre of land at Woking in 1878, and built its own cremator there in 1885. The apparatus, designed by Professor Gorini of Lodi, in Italy, stood in the middle of the site, and was described by a commentator as "somewhat similar to . . . a disused and tumble-down brick kiln", flanked by fuel sheds containing wood and coal. Not until 1888 could the Society afford to build a permanent chapel with a cremator room attached.

Brian Parsons’s account of the tussle between the pro-cremationists and the advocates of earth-to-earth burial makes fascinating reading. There were heated arguments on both sides. In an age that now accepts both cremation and "natural" burial, these squabbles appear somewhat superfluous; for both sides were doing their best to accelerate the sanitation of decomposition and to curb the expansion of cemeteries.

In another chapter, he gives a valuable insight into the funeral trade’s acceptance of cremation, and the development of combustible coffins, and designs for urns and caskets for cremated remains.

Woking was followed by the Manchester Crematorium in 1892, Glasgow in 1895, and the superb Liverpool Crematorium at Anfield in 1896. But the key to a widespread acceptance of the process came with the passing of the Burial Authorities (Cremation) Act in 1902, the year in which the Cremation Society’s flagship at Golders Green was under construction. And it is with Golders Green that Mr Parsons brings his book to a close.

Dr Litten is the President of the Church Monuments Society, and the first President of the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery.

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