Cremation in England Part 3: Burying the cremated remains

Date Published: 
March, 2006
Original Author: 
Brian Parsons
Funeral Service Journal
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006

When cremation began in England, no one scattered the remains.
Columbaria were available for urns, and cemeteries accepted burials, many marked by miniature gravestones.

The first cremations in this country presented the families of those cremated with the issue of final disposition of the remains. There were two alternatives: retention in a columbarium and earth burial. Though the former was offered by the Cremation Society of England at Woking crematorium, burial was the option most favored. Based on research from cremation and burial registers, funeral directors' records and published accounts of funerals in the years 1885-1900, this article explores some of the issues apparent from this challenge to a culture more familiar with burial of a body in a coffin.

Retention in the columbarium
Both before and after the first cremation in 1885, cremation literature had given much consideration to both the earth burial and columbarium options for the remains.

The cremationists noted that the Romans practiced cremation-though they stressed that the modem process was more scientific and technically sophisticated-and stored remains in a columbarium.  The word columbarium is from the Latin word meaning dove, and refers to the compartments in a dovecote that resemble the niches of a columbarium.

The contents of columbaria also inspired the design of urns, though such receptacles had long been a feature of classical architecture; many examples can be found on London buildings. It was not long before the funeral business, which was providing wooden caskets, also began to supply urns.

At Woking, Edward Clarke's design for the crematorium hall included 27 niches below the east window (see illustration above) for either temporary or permanent placement of remains. If the latter, the niche could be enclosed with an inscribed stone tablet. In subsequent years, a new columbarium was built which was twice enlarged. For placement in perpetuity in a niche, the society charged £12 for the top two rows of niches and £10 for lower ones.

With cremation increasing, albeit slowly, columbaria appeared in London cemeteries. In 1891-1892, one was opened as part of the monumental chambers in the General Cemetery at Kensal Green, and in 1893 The London Cemetery Co. opened a columbarium within the New Catacombs at Highgate Cemetery and also at its sister location, Nunhead. At Brookwood, it was 1910 before an unused mausoleum was converted into a columbarium. Following his death in April 1904, the ashes of Sir Henry Thompson were placed in Golders Green's West Columbarium, which had opened in 1902.

Earth burial
Remains from some cremations were buried, sometimes in a cemetery attached to the crematorium. The Duke of Bedford's crematory at Woking had a small cemetery adjacent to the entrance. The burial of remains in the ground (or urn sepulture) had been advanced by William Robinson, gardener and member of Council of the Society, writing in 1880 in "God's Acre Beautiful, or the Cemeteries of the Future." Robinson had clearly been impressed by the tombs of the Romans and Greeks.

James Stephens Curl, in "The Historical Problems of Designing Crematoria," wrote: "Money otherwise wasted on elaborate funerals could be spent on beautiful urns and tombs set in an Arcadian landscape. While trees and shrubs would create glades within the cemetery, the perimeter of the grounds could have arcaded columbaria to resemble the cloistered cemeteries of Italy."

The society's engineer and first honorary secretary, William Eassie, rather wildly estimated that the "acre of land on which the Woking Crematory stands should accommodate, with proper management, 1,000,000 urns, or more than a year's mortality of the whole of the United Kingdom."

In 1888, the society recorded the first burial of cremated remains on its land, but it is unclear exactly where. The Cremation Society Council minutes in March 1890 recorded that the decision "that a piece of ground belonging to the society at St. John's be set aside for the interment of ashes and that the sum of £1 be charged for each interment."

The first burial in the Cremation Society's cemetery was for Robert Faulkner, cremated on June 10, 1890. This is noted in the registers as Plot 1. The site was initially popular, and over the next 20 years, hundreds of interments took place.

In the cemetery, there are many traditional monuments—all in miniature. Included are the broken column, the cross, the Celtic cross, the obelisk; tablets raised above the ground, an enclosed chest and two memorials with a swastika emblem.

However, by the early part of the 20th century, the society appeared to consider the burial of cremated remains in the cemetery inappropriate. "The Transactions of the Cremation Society" for 1924 states that: 'In the last two decades of the 19th century, the early cremationists could not entirely break away from the idea of burial. Plots of land were therefore set aside for interment of urns, each one being marked by a miniature gravestone and thus perpetuating the effect of a small cemetery. That fortunately has now practically ceased, but St. John's Crematorium, Woking ... has such a ground, curiously unsightly, but still an interesting relic of a transitional period."

Burials also took place away from the crematorium. By the end of 1886, 13 cremations had taken place at Woking, and all remains were removed from the area. Where earth burials took place, they did so either in a proprietary cemetery or Anglican churchyard.

After the fourth cremation, "the ashes were gathered up and placed in an urn, which was taken away in charge of a relative or friend." After the eighth, the remains "were handed to the sons of the deceased, who were present at the ceremony," and later interred at Nunhead Cemetery. Clearly, the Cremation Society wanted the next of kin or executor—termed the "Applicant for Cremation" according to the 1902 Cremation Act—to be responsible for the decision.

Probably the first division of the cremated remains occurred after the cremation of Madame Blavarsky, founder of the Theosophical movement, whose remains were divided in three and sent to Europe, America and India.

The remains of Osmond De Beauvior Priaulx, cremated in January 1891, were transported back to Guernsey and placed in an urn behind a grille in the Priaulx Library in St. Peter Port. Those of Charles Wyndham Rodolph Kerr, cremated in February 1894, were buried in the floor at St. Saviour's Church Pimlico, following a ruling from the chancellor of the Diocese of London.

Analyzing the burials
Several interesting observations can be made about the disposition of cremated remains in these early years:

1. There appeared to be no problem with burying the remains in consecrated ground, including churchyards, despite the Church of England's uneasy attitude toward cremation.

It seems ironic that the formerly anti-cremation vicar of St. John's Church Woking, in whose parish the crematorium is situated, permitted cremated remains to be buried in his churchyard. The church burial registers show that 22 caskets of such remains were buried in the churchyard between January 1890 and January 1896, when 730 cremations were carried out, and that none of those interred were St. John's parishioners.

The rights of burial are for those living and dying in the parish, but can also be extended to others at the discretion of the incumbent vicar. Unlike in some churchyards, the fact of cremation was noted in the burial register; the notation "after cremation" appears with each entry before the full name.

2. In some cases, the fact that the deceased had been cremated was noted on the memorial. At Brookwood Cemetery, this fact was not recorded on the memorials for the first three caskets of cremated remains interred. But the memorial for Isabella Knight, who was cremated and buried on February 14, 1891, did include that information. At least one memorial (for Sir William John Moore, who died on September 9, 1896) includes the phrase, "cremated at Woking."

3. It appears that cremated remains were buried without delay. In 1886, the remains of the 11th and 13th persons cremated were buried the same day at Hastings and Highgate, respectively. Following the cremation of Alfred Allason at 1 p.m., April 25, 1890, his remains were buried at Brookwood the next morning. The cremation of Percy William Thomas on September 22, 1894, at 2 p.m. must have been carried out with astonishing rapidity, as the remains were buried at Brookwood at 4 p.m.

It seems that the deceased's relatives often waited for the remains while the cremation was taking place. According to the February 1898 "Undertaker's Journal," "With the actual process of cremation the undertaker has nothing whatever to do, but whilst it is in progress, his hands are fairly full. At St. John's it is customary for the mourners to adjourn for lunch, arrangements for which may be made with Mr. Wood at the Albion Hotel." The rationale behind following the cremation with lunch and then burial is easy to see: It saved the family the expense of a second trip to Woking.

4. Being an undertaker who owned a cemetery made handling cremation more profitable. The proprietors of the London Necropolis Co., which had a cemetery at Brookwood, were also undertakers who in the early 1890s formed a relationship with the Cremation Society to carry out cremations. The society offered the company a significant discount on cremation fees in return for providing an all charges-included funeral.

The coffined body was brought to the company's private railway station at Waterloo and transported to the cemetery, where it was then conveyed to the crematorium along with the mourners. The remains could then be buried in private graves in the cemetery, with a memorial specifically designed to accommodate caskets such as the glass-sided chest pictured at left.

Out of the 35 cremations arranged by the London Necropolis Co. in 1892, 14 caskets of remains went to Brookwood; two years later, 21 caskets of remains from 51 cremations went to Brookwood. This was clearly a convenient and profitable arrangement for the company and gave the firm an incentive to promote cremation.

The company could convey the mourners and coffin by train to the cemetery, where the family could walk around the cemetery while the cremation took place. The family could then attend the burial before getting back on the train to go home.
The winds of change
By the end of the 19th century, four crematoria had opened. However, neither Manchester, Liverpool nor Glasgow had followed Woking's example of providing a burial ground for the remains, although a columbarium was included in the overall scheme for each facility.

As additional crematoria opened in the 20th century, particularly during the interwar years, and then as cremation increased, the problem of limited columbaria capacity became apparent.

Furthermore, the cremationists had shifted from promoting cremation as a hygiene issue to a cost issue, and following cremation with burial in a grave or inurnment in a columbarium would only add to expenditures. A newfound place and mode of disposition emerged: The scattering of ashes in gardens of remembrance.

The author thanks Woking Crematorium General Manager Kathy Reynolds, the Cremation Society Archive at Durham University and John Clarke for help in preparation of the original paper on which this is based.