Cremation became a legal and practical alternative to burial when the Cremation Society inaugurated their Woking Crematorium in 1885, but the practice remained expensive and practically difficult while Woking remained the only crematorium in the country.
Commitals remained in the low hundreds per annum, peaking at 301 in the year 1900. By the start of the new century crematoria had begun to appear in the north, in Manchester (1895), Glasgow (1895), Liverpool (1896) and Hull (1901).
The Cremation Society had attempted to find a site in London for some years before they bought a twelve-acre site at Hoop Lane, Golders Green, directly across the road from a recently opened Jewish cemetery.
Golders Green Crematorium opened in 1902, designed in red brick by Sir Ernest George (1839-1922) and Alfred Bowman Yeates (1867-1944). Not only was this the first crematorium in the metropolis, but it was the first anywhere in Britain designed by architects of national repute.
From the start its policy was secular – rites of any religion, and none, were and are acceptable – and the Lombardic Romanesque style was deliberately unecclesiastical. Furthermore, the garden layout designed by William Robinson (1838-1935) looked as little like a Victorian cemetery as possible.
The facility gained popularity, and its existence was influential in making cremation the preferred means of disposal in the UK. In 2013, 74% of funerals were cremations.
Cremation gradually became respectable, rather than radical. The first member of the royal family to be cremated was Princess Louise Margaret, Duchess of Connaught and Strathearn (1860-1917), Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law. Her ashes were transported from Golders Green to the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore in an urn inside a conventional coffin.
After the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was cremated before burial in Westminster Abbey, the Dean and Chapter moved to a policy whereby burials in the Abbey had to be preceded by cremation to save space. The only exception is the Percy Dukes of Northumberland, who are still free to use their family vault in the Abbey for burial if they wish. A parallel rule was adopted by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Reading the memorial plaques in the cloisters at Golders Green makes one wonder who wasn’t cremated there.
The most recent well-known funerals there have included John Inman (1935-2007), Michael Foot (1913-2010), Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013).
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.
Golders Green Crematorium features in the tour Cemeteries & Sanitation: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (June 18th-24th 2015). For further details, please click here.