1874: The Cremation Society of Great Britain

In the UK, interest in cremation provoked the establishment of the Cremation Society of Great Britain in 1874. From this point, and for close to a century, strong lobbying in favour of this process becomes evident in local decision-making relating to disposing the dead.

The Cremation Society was led by the conviction that earth burial was a danger to the living, and that cremation offered a way of rendering the body ‘absolutely innocuous’. Early cremationists included political, religious and cultural leaders. Considerable progress was made through an unexpected intervention. In 1884, Dr William Price – an unorthodox individual who espoused Druidic practices – cremated the body of his five-month-old son on the hills near Llantristant. The ensuing court case concluded that burning a body was not a criminal act.

The Cremation Society opened the first cemetery in Woking in 1885, and the first cremation took place in January of that year. The Cremation Society was active in promoting progress towards the building of local crematoria. From the mid-1880s onwards there is evidence of meetings on the subject in major cities. The earliest crematoria were built in Manchester (1892), Glasgow (1895), Liverpool (1896), Hull (1901) and Darlington (1901).

In each of these places, the decision to build a crematorium would have been discussed in the local newspapers, and early years of operation would have been observed with interest.

The Cremation Society archive at Durham University contains considerable material on the progress of cremation in towns and cities throughout the UK, including newspaper cuttings and correspondence with local cremation societies.

There are few local histories of cremation, despite the wealth of primary material that is available.

Additional reading

H. Grainger (2005) Death Redesigned. British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape, Reading: Spire Books Ltd.

This text discusses individual crematoria throughout the UK, with an emphasis on architecture and design. There is a gazetteer with entries on every crematorium.

P.C. Jupp (2006) From Dust to Ashes. Cremation and the British Way of Death Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

B. Parsons (2005) Committed to the Cleansing Flame. The Development of Cremation in Nineteenth Century England, Reading, Spire Books Ltd.

These texts offer a detailed histories of cremation and its advocates. Parsons is particularly useful in terms of material on local progress. 


British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.