The controversial birth of cremation in the UK

Nearly two out of three Scots choose cremation these days, so it’s hard to image a time when the practice was not merely frowned upon, but actually illegal. Only those lost at sea and the odd witch avoided being laid to rest in a grave. But it took some dramatic events to break through the taboo.

One of the earliest involved a Welsh medical doctor come arch-druid. Perhaps because he named his infant son Jesus Christ, but more likely because he tried to cremate him on top of a particularly scenic local hill in 1884, Dr William Price faced some rather fierce opposition from his neighbours. As he tried to cremate young Jesus, Price was beset by an angry mob, no doubt brandishing pitchforks and yelling about monsters in Welsh, mid-ceremony. The crowd wrested his son from the pyre with seconds to spare and gave him a ‘proper’ Christian burial.

But Dr Price’s shocking move did not happen in isolation. While he might have been following his druidic beliefs, there was already a campaign in full swing that would eventually turn the tide towards cremation. Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, had been arguing for nearly 10 years that cremation was a ‘necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied’. One assumes he didn’t mean for Vicky herself.

He helped start the Cremation Society of England in 1874, which had the first British crematorium built in Woking, England, in 1878. A trial cremation of a horse proved highly successful but before any people could follow, local opposition, led by the vicar (probably without pitchfork), had it closed down

For the next four years, the society floundered and the building languished unused. But in 1882, a Captain Thomas Hanham applied to the society to undertake the cremation of his wife and mother. The society applied to the Home Secretary for permission, and was rejected so Captain Hanham, being a military man and used to getting things done, opted for the DIY approach. He had a furnace built on his estate, where wife and mother were duly despatched. The government took no action. A year later, the Captain himself died and was cremated. Again no action.

But the attempted burning of a five-month-old the following year by a father dressed in a white tunic over green trousers was clearly a step too far. Dr Price was thrown in jail. However, this provided the breakthrough the society needed. The judge in the trial pronounced cremation legal provided it didn’t cause a nuisance to others. It took another 10 years for a local Act of Parliament, in Cardiff in 1894, to finally put a law on cremation on the statute book, and then other crematoria, including the Maryhill Crematorium in Glasgow in 1895, began appearing.

Meanwhile, Woking Crematorium had been reopened on the back of Dr Price’s exoneration and on 26 March 1885, Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill, a well-known figure in contemporary literary and scientific circles, became the first person to be cremated in a purpose-built furnace. That year, in which there were around 522,000 deaths, three people in total were cremated in England. In 1902, when the Cremation Act finally passed at Westminster, there were 431 cremations in England and 20 in Scotland. Its popularity continued to grow and it is now the preferred option across the UK.

Back in 1885, the year after he was thwarted in his attempts to give baby Jesus a Druidic funeral, Dr Price claimed £3,120 damages against the police for preventing the cremation. But maybe this time it was the name. Dr Price was awarded the princely sum of one farthing. Nine years later, when Dr Price died, he was cremated, as he wished, on the same hillside where he’d tried to cremate his son. His funeral was watched by 20,000 people, including his family, dressed in a mix of traditional Welsh and Druidic clothing, and not one of them wielded a pitchfork.