Ashes to ashes – Cremation and its growing popularity

Nunhead cemetery urn gravestone headstone
Cremation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “disposal of a dead person’s body by burning it to ashes, typically after a funeral ceremony”. It is the “combustion, vaporisation and oxidation of cadavers to basic chemical compounds, such as gases, ashes and mineral fragments” (Wikipedia).

cremation urn greek

Greek Cremation urn of a pregnant woman 850 B.C. Museum of the Agora of Athens – Credit to Wikipedia Commons

The idea of cremation is not a new one. Long before crematoria were built and columbarium walls erected to immortalise the dead, cremation was a popular practice 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. There are traces of cremation in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome where the deceased’s ashes were placed in highly decorated urns and then interred in tombs (Classical Roman urns are a popular sight in Victorian cemeteries). But why did cremation fall out of favour and later become popular once more?

According to statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain, 75% of us chose to be cremated in 2015 (in the UK). Cremation rates vary all over the world, for instance, it is most popular in countries where Hinduism and Buddhism are the majority religion (such as Japan and Thailand) where cremation is part of their burial tradition. As you would expect cremation is less popular in Roman Catholic and Muslim countries such as Italy and throughout the Middle East. The Catholic Church lifted the ban on cremation in 1966 and this meant that Catholic priests could preside over cremation ceremonies, although they still insist that cremated remains must be buried in an appropriate burial place as scattering or keeping them at home are still forbidden.
Cremation conflicts with the belief that the body must be ‘whole’ when you die and your soul enters Heaven. Another influence for Christianity may be that in the Bible, after his crucifixion Christ is buried in a rock-hewn tomb.


Sir Henry Thompson viewing the Brunetti cremation furnace depicted in Scientific American, 9th May 1874 – Credit to Brian Parsons ‘Committed to the Cleansing Flame’ (2005)

With the arrival of Christianity in Britain from the remnants of the Roman Empire, cremation was linked to their pagan past and largely abandoned in favour of burial. Cremation, in modern terms, rose to prominence in the 1870s although it didn’t catch on until over 30 years later. Between 1869 and 1872 several papers advocating cremation started to emerge and some contained results of the first experimental research. Although the first to advocate for the use of cremation in the UK was the physician Sir Thomas Browne in 1658, it wasn’t until an Italian Professor by the name of Brunetti exhibited cremating apparatus at the Vienna Exposition in 1873 that the idea started to take flight. It attracted great public attention, in particular, the attention of the surgeon and physician to Queen Victoria, Sir Henry Thompson. He later wrote a paper titled ‘The Treatment of the Body after Death’ published in 1874. His main reason for advocating cremation was that “it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied”. It is also interesting to note that the Protestant churches tended to be more accepting of cremation and adopted the practice earlier than their Catholic counterparts, although some faiths within Protestantism were opposed to the practice.

As the population in the UK increased in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, space for the dead became even more limited. In the early 1800s vaults, church graveyards and other burial grounds had reached capacity. Reportedly, coffins were stacked one on top of the other in the same grave, sometimes with only inches of soil covering them. Decomposing bodies were often disturbed to make room for new burials. Coffins were damaged and the wood sold off to the poor as firewood and bones were broken up and lay scattered among the gravestones. Exhuming of long-buried bones had always been a custom but now the act was becoming more macabre, unorthodox and unsanitary.

cholera london victorian epidemic

Poster dated 1st November 1831 warning the inhabitants of the London parish of Clerkenwell of a cholera epidemic – Credit to Wellcome Library, London – ‘Dirty Old London’ Lee Jackson (2014)

Despite the welcome addition of commercial cemeteries such as The Magnificent Seven, London’s burial problem still persisted. By the 1840s urban burials were regarded as a health hazard and dangerous for public health. Talk of miasma (noxious gases issuing from corpses) was rife and led to fears that diseases common at the time such as cholera and typhoid were bred in graveyards.
There was also concern about the interment of the poor who could not afford the rich trappings of a grand funeral as burial costs were so high. As a result, most of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries remained half full and cemetery companies began cutting the burial fees as a way to reel in new punters in a rather grim clearance sale, but still, plots remained unsold – one of the contributing factors of their decline in the latter 19th century.

highgate cemetery

Columbarium in Highgate

Not only does cremation destroy any organic matter that could cause illness and sickness (it was thought that mourners attending funerals were becoming ill) but it also gave families a better way to preserve ashes and decide what would happen to the deceased afterward; burial, keeping them at home, scattered in a meaningful place (although some Anglican churches initially required that the ashes were buried within consecrated grounds), etc. The pomp and ceremony of the Victorian funeral were in decline and Thompson believed that not only would cremation prevent premature burial but it would also bring the cost of funerals down, would spare mourners having to stand out in the cold and rain and prevented vandalism of tombs.

cremation victorian london

A handbill distributed in London in 1874 on the atrocities of cremation – Credit to Cremation Society Archive, Durham University Library – ‘Committed to the Cleansing Flame’ Brian Parsons (2005)

Sir Henry Thompson founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The society’s first task was to find out if cremation was legal in the United Kingdom. Originally only some Protestant churches accepted cremation while the Catholic Church outright condemned it, believing it to be a heathen ritual. In 1878 Thompson purchased a piece of land close to St. John’s Village in Woking, Surrey. The land was purchased from the London Necropolis Company (who owned Brookwood Cemetery) and was first tested on the 17th March 1879 with the body of a horse.
In 1884 the legalisation of cremation came into repute when an eccentric and radical Neo-Druidic priest in Wales by the name of William Price decided to cremate his son’s five-month-old body on a hill in full view of his village. Price believed it was wrong to bury a corpse as it polluted the earth but when the villagers discovered that he was performing a cremation on an infant they attacked him, removed his son’s body from the pyre and almost killed Price. Price was later arrested by police who believed that he had illegally disposed of a corpse by cremating it rather than burying it. Price argued that while the law did not state that cremation was legal, it also did not state that it was illegal and the judge agreed with him. Price was freed and returned to his village to perform the cremation following his own Druidic beliefs. This set the precedent for the issue to be discussed in Parliament and in 1902 the Cremation Act was introduced in Britain. Much like the Interments Bill of 1832 where private companies were set up to build cemeteries, this act allowed “burial authorities to establish crematoria”. The Act stated that no crematoria could be built on consecrated ground nor could the Act be used to authorise the burial authority or any person to create or permit a nuisance.

woking crematorium

Woking Crematorium, 1878 – Credit to Wikipedia Commons

The first official (and legal) cremation took place at Woking Crematorium on 26th March 1885. This time the body was that of Jeanette Pickersgill, a painter, and well-known literary and scientific figure. The fear of being burned alive was still worrying so two doctors were called in to certify that Pickersgill was dead. The cremation took 1 hour and 15 minutes and set the ball rolling for cremations to become more widely practised with two more cremations taking place that year. In 1886 Woking saw a total of 10 bodies being cremated, and the figures rose steadily to 104 in 1892.
Crematoriums began to spring up over the rest of Europe. On hearing of the popularity, the first modern crematory in the U.S. was built in 1876. Australia later followed in 1901, with Stockholm’s (Sweden) and Helsinki’s (Finland) city columbaria being some of the first purpose and large scale built in Europe in the 1890s.

It has been reported that only 5% of American families choose cremation (the most popular method being embalming), whereas in England over half the families take the option of cremation.
Why do people prefer cremation? There are several reasons; the most popular I’ve heard (mainly from my mother!) is that the thought of being left underground in the earth in a box, being exposed to the elements and letting ‘nature take its course’ is uncomfortable. For others, there are environmental factors and the wish to be eco-friendly and “taking up less space” both appealing (although there is an argument that being cremated increases pollution with bodies burnt at temperatures of 750 – 1150°C with remains weighing typically 2 – 3.5 kg). With religious and traditional restrictions becoming less strict cremation is becoming an option for many more people.
Whatever your decision there is no right or wrong way to be buried. At the end of the day, it is your body and therefore your decision what should happen to it after you have departed. There is lots of information on the internet regarding the cremations vs. burial debate. Here are a few links to websites and articles that might be useful:

‘Should I…be buried or cremated?’ by Leo Hickman – The Guardian 2005

The Good Funeral Guide

For more information on the practice of cremation, I highly recommend the book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium’ by Caitlin Doughty (you can find it on Amazon here.

2 thoughts on “Ashes to ashes – Cremation and its growing popularity

  1. I like that you talked about how cremation takes up far less space than embalming. I have been planning my funeral the past couple of weeks. I can see how it would be nice to try cremation because I don’t love the idea of being underground in a big box.


    • It’s great that you’re thinking about what you would like to happen to you after you die. As a funeral director I see loads of families who aren’t sure what their loved one wanted and it can create some friction with families and can also add to the grief if they think they might be doing something the deceased wouldn’t have wanted.

      Cremation has come a long way since it was first legalised. Some companies are trying out new ways of cremation that don’t involve fire like freezing the body at extreme temperatures to break the body down. Although cremation is ‘space saving’ it does have a slight impact on the environment as some gasses are released into the atmosphere.


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