MY LIFE WITH DEATH
WHERE WOULD CREMATION BE WITHOUT A CERTAIN DR PRICE?
What’s an elderly Victorian druid from Wales, who was a vegetarian and an advocate of free love, got to do with us? Quite a lot, actually. Maybe not in life. But very likely in death.
His name was Dr William Price and, in 1883, in his 80s, he fathered a baby. The little boy sadly died at five months and, in line with druid customs, Dr Price built a pyre and attempted to burn the body. Can you imagine the reaction? Locals were appalled and Dr Price was arrested. He was locked up in Cardiff Castle for his own safety, apparently, as there was a lynch mob outside.
The doctor argued that while the law did not state cremation was LEGAL, it also did not state that it was ILLEGAL. The court case duly found that cremation was NOT ILLEGAL, provided no nuisance was caused; this judgement then paved the way for cremation to become commonplace. (Currently around ninety per cent of the funerals I do are cremations). But there were still a few hurdles to jump to get to the state of play we have in 2017.
It’s kind of obvious that what we do when death happens will have changed over the years, like so many things in life. Cremations are now cheaper than burials in the UK as well as easier on the land in terms of space taken up, especially important given increasing populations.
Did you know that cremation was actually practised by many civilisations over many thousands of years? Cremated remains found in Australia in the 1960s were thought to be at least 20,000 years old. But many societies moved away from cremation for a very long time. I’ve read that the Egyptians began to popularise the tradition of preserving bodies, and stone coffins went on to become common in the early Roman Empire.
Christians rejected cremation, believing in the Resurrection, so by the time Christianity was really widespread, cremation was frowned upon by the very powerful church.
The cremation revival actually began before Dr Price’s court case in Victorian times. That revival included British officials in India campaigning for the building of crematoriums to stop the Hindu custom of burning bodies outside. Plus, there began to be much more talk in the UK about cremations, although little happened, in part because the church still opposed the practice.
Eventually, in 1874, the Cremation Society was set up in London. It pushed for cremation, talking about things like hygiene and cost and although there was still opposition, the Society bought some land in Surrey. There it built its first crematorium, in 1878, and a dead horse was the successful ‘test run’.
However, it still wasn’t a given that cremation would continue. Locals protested and the use of the new building was forbidden; it was said that cremation could be used to destroy evidence of murder. (I know from experience that funerals involving burials are often quicker than those involving crematoriums as there is less bureaucracy; a body can be dug up, if necessary, after burial, but with cremation, of course, when it’s gone, it’s gone).
Finally, the first cremation - of a woman named Jeannette Pickersgill - went ahead in March 1885, the year after Dr Price had tried to burn the body of his son. It still wasn’t to be plain sailing but the path was definitely becoming easier.
A 1902 Act of Parliament allowed the government to regulate cremation and soon many crematoriums were built. Most people at this point, though, still didn’t like the thought of their bodies being burned; it’s said that when new regulations were issued in 1930 less than five per cent of funerals ended with cremation. A key point came in the 1960s when the Vatican lifted a ban on Catholics being cremated. Now, just a few religious groups in Britain oppose the practice.
I'm going to read more about Dr Price if I can. Whether you love him, loathe him or feel indifferent to him, it’s kind of hard to ignore him when you know a little about his own Life With Death.
Until next time,