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July 2018 Item of the Month

Britain’s first Crematorium

The first crematorium in Britain was built on an acre of land purchased by the Cremation Society from the Necropolis Company in Woking. Initially the project was strongly opposed by Woking residents and the Home Office. There were concerns that cremation could be used to destroy evidence of foul play, as well as religious opposition.

The founder of the Cremation Society, Sir Henry Thompson regarded opposition as sentimental and superstitious. In his Cremation: the Treatment of the body after death (1874)he presents cremation as a sanitary solution to the disposition of the dead in rapidly expanding urban areas. Nineteenth-century churchyards and cemeteries were starting to become crowded, conditions were unpleasant and epidemics were not unfamiliar. Cremation was not only a hygienic alternative to burial but also saved valuable land.

Though the Cremation Society of Great Britain was founded by Thompson in 1874, the first cremation of a human body at Woking didn’t take place until 1885.

Image of a receipt for the removal of a body to Necropolis Station, 1891 (Ref: CRE/P2/F2/2).
Receipt for the removal of a body to Necropolis Station, 1891 (Ref: CRE/P2/F2/2).

In these early days the Necropolis Company and the Cremation Society developed a mutually beneficial and profitable relationship. For a fee the Society was given use of the Necropolis’ private railway line to convey bodies from London, use of their mortuary and attendants.

In this letter to Cremation Society member T. Spencer Wells, Thompson expresses his apprehension that the Society was on the verge of a disagreement with the Necropolis Company. He continues to reference the Company’s essential role in increasing the number of cremations and attributes 25% of their business in 1890 to the Company.

A concern to the Society during this period was that the Necropolis Company could build a crematorium should the Society become disagreeable or fail to provide enough profit. Though the Society was committed to supporting the development of crematoria in Britain they did not welcome the idea of direct competition in Woking.

Regardless of Thompson’s desire to maintain good communication with the Necropolis Company he was also adamant that nothing be done to harm the image of cremation as the only sanitary option for disposal of a corpse. In the letter above he states that the Company

“[is] not permitted to make some show of burying a body with disinfectants in the coffin under the impression that they are really effecting any service by sprinkling in some chemicals over or about the body. The public must be made to understand that the essential principles of infection pervade every part of the corpse.”
Letter from Sir Henry Thompson to T. Spencer Wells, 22 August 1891 (Ref: CRE/P2/F)
Image of a cutting and sketch from a Cremation Society album (Ref: CRE/H6, p.146).
Cutting and sketch from a Cremation Society album (Ref: CRE/H6, p.146).

Though cremation had gained more supporters by 1890 many were still un-swayed by the hygienic and social advantages of cremation, or too easily swayed by superstition and misunderstanding. This pen and ink drawing captioned ‘The Vicar of Woking’s idea of cremation’, from one of the Society’s clippings books, is a humorous take on opposition that stemmed largely from a lack of knowledge. The clipping beneath states “[The Cremation Society]… admitted that there was manifest prejudice against the innovation, nevertheless they ventured to predict that the time would come when cremation would, from a hygienic point of view, be the recognised system for dealing with the dead.’ (CRE/H6, p. 146). Cremation now accounts for approximately 75% of the funerals in Britain.

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