Cremating the dead is nothing particularly new. It’s been going on since the Stone Age. But in Britain, we’ve not been too keen on it since we converted to Christianity. Burning was something reserved for heretics. Often, we didn’t even wait until they were dead.
But after a few hundred years of sticking the dead in the ground, along came the Victorians, with their (often entirely reasonable) fear of germs, dirt and disease. Sir Henry Thompson, physician to the Queen, was a champion of cremation, and in 1874 he formed the Cremation Society to push for the legalisation of the practice as a “necessary sanitation precaution against the propagation of disease”.
In 1878, the society bought a plot of land next to Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey – the famous ‘Necropolis’. The following year they built a crematorium – but it would be a while before they could use it. In 1884, however, a case came before the courts that would pave the way for legal cremations.
A rather eccentric Welsh doctor and druid, Dr William Price, had attempted to cremate the body of his infant son (who he had named Iesu Grist – Welsh for Jesus Christ) on top of a pyre. He was arrested and tried. But the judge ruled that, while there was nothing to say what he had done was legal, nor was there anything to say it was illegal.
The Cremation Society took that to mean they could go ahead. And so, on this day in 1885, the poet Janet Pickersgill became the first person to be officially cremated in Britain.
That year, Woking carried out three cremations. In 1886, it carried out ten. Today, with cemeteries running out of space, and the cost of a cremation at around a third that of a burial, over 70% of all funerals in Britain involve cremation.