Cremation was practised in the old Roman and Greek civilisations and was generally accepted as a method of disposing of the dead. However, with the advent and spread of Christianity and its belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavour and, by the time of the fifth century, had become almost completely obsolete.
The first re-emergence of interest in cremation in modern times was in 1658 in an essay ‘Hydrotaphia: Urn Burial’ by Sir Thomas Browne, a physician from Norwich. During the next two centuries numerous other discussions on this subject took place but the revival of the subject took place in 1869 when it was presented to the Medical International Congress. In 1873, cremation apparatus designed by Professor Brunetti was exhibited at the Vienna Exposition attracting great attention, including that of Sir Henry Thompson, Bart., FRCS, and Surgeon to Queen Victoria.
In the following year, Sir Henry Thompson wrote an article in support of cremation and this provoked lively discussion and intense controversy in the Press. Encouraged by the response to his article, Sir Henry Thompson called a meeting of a number of his friends and a declaration was drawn up and signed by those present:
“We, the undersigned, disapprove the present custom of burying the dead and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements, by a process which cannot offend the living and shall render the remains perfectly innocuous. Until some better method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation”.
By this act, The Cremation Society of England came into being with the purpose of obtaining and disseminating information on cremation and making the process available.
In 1879, The Cremation Society purchased some land adjacent to Woking Cemetery and on this site constructed a crematorium. The inhabitants of Woking, however, showed strong opposition to the crematorium and, led by the vicar, a deputation appealed to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, to prohibit the use of the building. Fearing that cremation might be used to prevent the detection of death by violence or poison, the Home Secretary refused to allow the use of the crematorium.
Matters remained the same until 1882 when the Cremation Society was requested by Captain Hanham to undertake the cremation of two deceased members of his family who had left instructions to that effect. The Home Secretary, when applied to, repeated his previous objections and the Society was thus unable to comply with the request of Captain Hanham, who consequently erected a crematorium on his own estate and proceeded to cremate his wife and mother. Captain Hanham himself died a year later and was also cremated there. The Home Office took no action. Nevertheless, the following year when the eccentric Dr William Price attempted to cremate the body of his five months old son, christened Jesus Christ, born to him at the age of 83, he was arrested and put on trial at Cardiff Assizes. The result of the trial, announced in 1884, was that cremation is legal providing that no nuisance is caused in the process to others.
The 1884 case of R. v Price allowed cremation to take place but the rate of cremation remained very low. The Cremation Act of 1902 provided a legislative structure for the establishment of crematoria and future legislation provided the Regulations for its control.
The main period of growth in the acceptance of cremation and the construction of crematoria commenced in the early 1950s until, by 1967, the number of cremations in Britain exceeded the number of burials.
In the year 2013, there were 272 crematoria in the UK and in the year ended 31st December 2013, there were 436,280 cremations representing 75.1% of all deaths.