By 1850, there was no more room to bury the dead in the traditional English village churchyard. There was even less room in the cities and a public health emergency in London. A few voices suggested that cremation was the answer. The Victorians mostly disagreed, and this reluctance persisted into the next century, so cremation, or any change in the treatment of the dead, remained a radical view in the nineteenth century, and most of the twentieth.
By 1901, there were only six crematoria in the United Kingdom, and only 427 cremations took place out of 551,585 deaths – less than 0.1%. By 1902, when there had only ever been 4,409 cremations, 2,653 of which had taken place in one crematorium in Woking. Cremation represented barely 5% of interments even as late as the 1930s and was impermissible to Roman Catholics until 1963. Cremation overtook traditional burial in the United Kingdom as late as 1967. It now represents 75% of all internments in the UK.
What was the Victorian objection? They were varied and different, and some had credibility. The Bible was the first port of call, naturally. Burial is in the Bible. In Genesis, Abraham bought a piece of ground to bury the dead out of his sight. In Joshua, the bones of Joseph were preserved for many years, and then buried. And, of course, Jesus was resurrected with his body intact. The promise of eternal life did not begin with the urn.
The argument was less clear in the cold light of human experience. Gruesome historical events had meant that the internment of an intact corpse was not always possible, and the consequences were worrying. What about the Christian martyrs in the Coliseum, their bodies ripped apart by wild animals? What about the Oxford Martyrs of the Reformation whose punishment for holding on to the truth was to be cremated before they were dead? The body decayed naturally, albeit in God’s time and not man’s – ‘dust to dust’, said The Book of Common Prayer and even more clearly – ‘ashes to ashes’, inspired by Ecclesiastes Verse 3 Chapter 20, ‘All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return’.
Clearly, the spirit was everything and the body just a container. As one Bishop of Manchester put it, ‘No intelligent faith can suppose that any Christian doctrine is affected by the manner in which this mortal body of ours crumbles into dust’. And, on a practical level, the Bishop would have seen the overstuffed and insanitary graveyards of rapidly expanding Manchester every single day.
By 1880, Cremation was technically possible and not illegal, but this did not make it popular. It was a permissive act, so most people choose not to. There was also the small matter of building and maintaining suitable places to perform the function. Local government discussed the issue in the 1890’s onwards but it was never the right time to spend taxpayer’s money on something so unappealing.
The strongest argument was practical; cremation was a poisoner’s charter. This was an unregulated era where deadly chemical concoctions where available over the counter, and there were well documented cases of murderers being brought to justice by timely exhumations of their victims. The only solution would be to have post-mortems for all deaths, which would be the cremation tail wagging the internment dog. In 1879, the government briefly threatened to outlaw the practice, and it stayed in legal limbo for the next two decades, which hindered its growth.
The other argument against it was the people who were in favour of it. They did not feel very representative of the average respectable Victorian. They were often rich, radical, bohemian or the opposite, cold calculated rationalists with a hint of atheism about them. Many people, perhaps rightly, could not see the safe passage of their loved ones to eternity was a sanitary issue. It felt cold; the cremationists argued that it was less appalling that the damp vault, the darkness and the worm.
The people who thought that cremation was pagan had their opinion justified in 1883 when a William Price cremated his five-month-old child on a mountain top with petroleum. Price was a self-identifying druid. His favoured costume was green trousers, white smock coat, and fox-skin head-covering. He was also a vegetarian, nudist and anti-vivisectionist who had a son with his housekeeper and called him Jesus Christ in a (successful) attempt to outrage the local churchgoers. The radical feminist vegetarian Anna Kingsford also considered cremation, despite her husband being a Church of England vicar.
The cold rational doctor that was most associated with cremation was Sir Henry Thompson, a physician and member of the British Medical Association. (So was the Druid Price, and some people saw this is as part of a scientists plot destroy cherished traditions). He became a qualified doctor later than normal for members of his social class. His father was opposed to it; ‘all doctors become infidels’ he was reputed to have said, and in this case, he was not far wrong. Thompson rejected traditional Christianity and replaced it with a general Deist philosophy, but kept this relatively quiet as he pushed for cremation.
In 1874, he became the first president of the British Cremation Society. This was their high-handed resolution:
We disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements by a process which cannot offend the living and render the remains perfectly innocuous.
Thompson had already seen and conducted experiments to prove that it cremation could be done in an hour and ashes could be transported respectfully and unobtrusively. Coke was used successfully as a smokeless fuel; the atmosphere was tested for pollution; it was about experiment not emotion. Thompson even suggested that disposal of ashes at sea would increase the fish population; this was a step too far for many people and proved so unhelpful and so counter-productive that anti-cremationists gave it publicity.
Thompson pointed out that deaths caused by the putrefaction of overcrowded graveyards were a greater killer than occasional murder by poison, but when that did not cut through, he turned their argument on its head and argued that it was the actual availability of the body after death that made the system of post mortem registration and finding foul play so lax. In the 1890s, Thompson was lobbying for a law that would improve the quality of the death certificate and oblige physicians to look for signs of decomposition before issuing any paperwork. Thompson was never ready to spare a grieving relative’s feelings. He courted more unpopularity when he suggested that compulsory cremation of victims of smallpox, scarlet fever, or diphtheria. He would never have prospered as the charming doctor of modern morning television.
The enemies of cremation need not have worried. By 1890 there had been 138 at the Cremation Societies purpose-built crematorium in Woking. Thompson died on 18 April 1904; two days before he had been driving his motor car, which he did almost daily. His body was disposed of in a sanitary manner at Golders Green Crematorium, the first in London, which he had opened in 1902.
He had not convinced the nation.
Further reading – Dorset Houses – A burning question | Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine
My blog on Victorian vegetarianism here.
Henry Thompson is one of the of the Victorian Radicals featured in my book. More details here.
My other books on Radical Britain here