The practice of cremation, as a simpler alternative to elaborate funerals and burial, first began to attract interest in Britain in the 1870s. The Cremation Society was founded in 1874 to try to win support for the practice.
The campaign for cremation
At first, strong public objections were raised at what was regarded as a pagan practice and the Society's initial attempts to build a crematorium at Woking in Surrey were blocked by the Home Office. However, it continued its efforts to sway public opinion.
One keen advocate of cremation was an eccentric elderly Welshman, Dr William Price, who took his interest in the rituals of the ancient druids to extremes.
In 1883 he attempted to cremate the body of his dead five month old son in the hills near Pontypridd, but was arrested and put on trial at Cardiff Assizes. In a landmark judgement, the presiding judge held that to burn a body was legal, provided it did not cause a nuisance to others.
In 1884 the Society opened its crematorium at Woking. It also promoted a bill in Parliament which proposed a regulatory framework for cremation but this was opposed by Gladstone's government.
Parliament regulates cremation
During the 1890s support for cremation increased, particularly amongst celebrities and members of the aristocracy.
In 1894 a local Act of Parliament allowed Cardiff corporation to establish a crematorium in its cemetery, the first time a law on cremation had reached the statute book.
A number of similar Acts were passed between 1896 and 1901 enabling other councils to construct crematoria.
General powers to all councils
The 1902 Cremation Act allowed all local authorities to establish crematoria, and provided for detailed regulation of their operation.
Although the annual number of cremations was small until after the Second World War, since then the practice has become widely used. By 2011 it accounted for 74 percent of all British funerals.
The 1902 Act and a further Cremation Act of 1952 are largely still in force. New regulations made under the 1902 Act, the Cremation Regulations 2008 came into effect on 1 January 2009. They modernise and consolidate all previous regulations, replacing the amended Cremation Regulations 1930.
Page last updated 1st May 2014