In Victorian times there was huge controversy about cremation. Utilitarian and sanitary arguments against burial were opposed by intransigent clergy. The Bishop of London, John Jackson, complained that cremation would “undermine the faith of mankind in the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and so bring about a most disastrous social revolution”. The Bishop of Manchester, James Fraser, responded that God would have no more difficulty resurrecting ashes than dust, or “bodies which had passed into the structure of worms”.
The very occasional cremations that came to public knowledge caused great scandal – Honoretta Brooks Pratt illegally cremated in 1769, Captain T B Hanham who built a private cremator for his wife, his mother and ultimately himself in Dorset – until the wildly eccentric Dr William Price’s cremation of his five-month-old son Iesu Grist in 1884 led to Mr Justice Stephen’s ruling that cremation was not an offence “provided no nuisance was caused”.
The Cremation Society built the first cremator in Britain at Woking in 1879, originally little more than a furnace with a 42ft chimney. They hesitated to use it until the legal ambiguities had been resolved, and the first cremation on the site, 71-year-old Mrs Jeanette Pickersgill, took place on March 26th 1885.
Thereafter a small number of cremations were carried out each year, and in 1891 a chapel and reception rooms designed by Edward Channing Clarke were added in a comfortable thirteenth-century Gothic style that was intended to reassure mourners and hide the functionality of the machinery within.
The relationship between Woking Crematorium and the nearby Brookwood Cemetery was fraught with ambiguity. The Cremation Society bought the land from the London Necropolis Company, but through a third party so that the cemetery company could dissociate itself. Yet in due time the London Necropolis Company provided funeral facilities, including trains from Waterloo, and sold plots for the burial of ashes.
Similarly, the vicar of St Peter’s Church, Woking, Rev Frederick J Oliphant, made an enormous fuss when the crematorium was first proposed, yet by 1889 the Rev William Hamilton, vicar of St John the Baptist, Woking, was conducting frequent funeral services at the crematorium for a fee of one guinea a time and also burying cremated remains in the churchyard at St John’s.
Woking Crematorium is still in use, its buildings cherished for their atmosphere and historical significance, its grounds a beautiful and extensive garden of remembrance: http://www.thelondoncremation.co.uk/woking-crematorium.
Cremation is now by far the most prevalent form of disposal of the dead: in 2012 only a quarter of disposals were burials.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.