Cremation vs. Burial

The practice of burning bodies is ancient; many civilizations did it. In Western Europe, however, cremation was curtailed by the coming of Christianity. Not only does the Bible command that the dead be buried, but Christ’s entombment was seen as essential to his resurrection – if his body had been destroyed he could not have risen up. Belief in the dead’s eventual resurrection on Judgment Day, with the body reunited with the soul (also called reassembly) is fundamental to Christianity. (Some have argued, however, that it would be no easier – or harder – for God to reassemble a decomposed body with its soul than a cremated one.)

During the 19th century, however, cremation began to be considered as an alternative. The poet Shelley’s remains were burned on a beach in Italy – not terribly successfully, however, as his heart remained intact and was sent back to his wife. Experimental cremations took place in several people’s back gardens in the 1870s, in the same decade as the issue was debated in the medical journal The Lancet, and the British Cremation Society was formed.

Moreover, cremation was not new to the poor. As a 19th-century gravedigger described one cemetery: "You should go there of a night, sometimes, Sir, and see them burning the bones and the coffins. You see, they dig up the ‘commonses’ every twelve years…and what they find left of them they burn."

Cremation was never actually illegal in Britain. The first working crematorium was built at Woking, Surrey in 1879 and was used a few times a year from 1885. In 1902 Parliament passed the Cremation Act, which both formally recognized the practice and legislated its use. Cemeteries began to cater for cremated remains; Highgate Cemetery, for example, opened a columbarium in 1902, with cubicles designed to hold urns full of ashes.

Cremation took a long time to catch on, however, probably because of the Christian belief in resurrection. Once Christian faith began to wane in Britain, as a result of the two world wars, cremation became more popular; now 70% of the population chooses it.

Cremations per year in Britain:
1885 – 3
1886 –10
1887 – 13
1912 – over 1000
1936 – 10,000
1968 – over half the deaths
2001- 70% of deaths

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