In the UK today cremation is the preferred funeral method over burial. Funeral celebrants lead more ceremonies ending in cremations than those for burials and natural burials together. Cremation wasn’t always the preferred funeral method. It was only within the last couple of hundred years that cremation became legal in this country.
Cremation, the Start
In its most simple form cremation has been around for a very long time. It was the Ancient Greeks who first brought cremation to the western world. When killed in battle soldiers would burn the bodies of their dead comrades on the battlefield, gather the ashes and return them to their family who would then carry out a ceremony for the burial of ashes.
The Romans followed suit, and the higher the rank of the soldier who had died, the more elaborate the cremation would be. Huge funeral pyres would be built and set alight while troops circled it shouting war cries. The blood of animals would be poured on the flames, and after the flames had gone out the remains would be washed in wine before being placed in urns.
These elaborate cremations continued throughout the Roman Empire until around 100 CE, when they were stopped due to the fact, they were using such vast quantities of wood it was feared there would be a shortage of wood.
Cremation Wasn’t Encouraged by Christians, Judaism, and Islam
Christianity was also emerging around this time and cremation was not encouraged by them. They feared it might interfere with resurrection of the body and its reunion with the soul. Judaism and Islam also opposed cremation with Islam seeing it as unclean.
As Christianity spread through western Europe cremations declined and would only be used for emergencies such as in 1656 during an outbreak of the plague when the bodies of 60,000 victims were burned in Naples during a single week.
Cremation and Paganism
Cremation was associated with the beliefs and practice of Paganism, and it was the preferred funeral method among Pagans of Scandinavia. They believed it helped to free the spirit from the body and it also prevented the dead from causing harm to the living. These Pagan cremations were as elaborate of those of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
Cremation for Other Religions
Cremations amongst other religions remained high. Hindus believe that after death the body no longer serves any purpose and cremation is the quickest way to release the soul and help with reincarnation. Sikhs share this belief and favour cremation over burial,
The Revival of Cremation
It wasn’t until the 19th century that cremation was revived in Europe. in 1874, when Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, published his influential book Cremation: The Treatment of the Body After Death. He was also responsible for organising the Cremation Society of England. The society worked to change public opinion on cremation.
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. This method of cremation was very different to those used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans on the battlefield. Open fires were no longer used, instead the body was placed in a purpose built chamber where intense heat generated from burning gas would transform the body in an hour or two, leaving the cremated remains.
Mrs Jeanette Pickersgill
It was several years later, in 1884, that a British court ruled cremation to be a legal procedure. The Cremation Society announced they were prepared to cremate ‘anyone so requesting it’ and the first cremation was of Mrs Jeanette Pickersgill. It took place in Woking on 26th March 1885.
It was quite some time before opinion about cremation changed, in 1885 there were 597,357 deaths with only 3 cremations. Move on by 100 years and there were 654,701 deaths and 443,687 cremations. By the end of 2021 there were 669,762 deaths of which 525,092 bodies were cremated. (Information sourced from): https://www.cremation.org.uk/progress-of-cremation-united-kingdom)
The number of cremations increased as space in graveyards was becoming short, particularly in urban areas and religious views were changing. Protestant churches began to support it, and eventually the Roman Catholic church said cremation was no longer prohibited. Cremation is still forbidden in the Orthodox Jewish religion and Islam.
There were still legal objections and fears that cremating a body could allow crimes to go undetected, there was no going back to review a body once cremation had taken place. It took many years before safety measures were put in place, from January 2009 new forms are required to arrange and authorise the cremation of someone who has died. The new forms were introduced as part of the safeguarding process following the recommendations in the Shipman Reports. Families now have the right to inspect the medical reports and can raise any concerns they may have regarding what has been detailed as the cause of death.
With cremation accounting for 78% of funerals in the UK, there are environmental concerns due to the amount of energy it requires, and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions it produces. Modern crematoriums have filtering systems, such as after chambers that burn and neutralise pollutants, but these filters don’t neutralise the carbon dioxide or the gas produced from heating a body up to over 900 degrees Celsius.
With the reality that we need to take steps to reduce such emissions and be more environmentally friendly there are potential alternatives to traditional cremation.
Sometimes referred to as water cremation (although to cremate there needs to be fire), the technical term for water cremation is Alkaline Hydrolysis and has about a tenth of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation.
While water cremation is legal in the UK there are currently no crematoria where you can choose this option, the process needs very specific facilities, and it has yet to be endorsed by any local council. Hopefully this will change soon, and this will be another choice available to families.
Further information on resomation can be found on their website https://resomation.com
Will cremation continue to be the popular funeral method in the future? Time will tell.
Cremator from 1929 in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol. Modern cremator image by The Good Funeral Guide