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The History Of Cremations

  • To Be Or Not To Be...Cremations
  • Burnt Offerings
  • Examples Of Cremation
  • Romans And Greeks
  • British Cremations
  • India’s Widow Burning
  • The British Struggle With Cremation

  • From Dust To Dust
  • United Kingdom Death And Cremation Statistics
  • Types Of Burials Mentioned In The Bible
  • Burial Options In Britain
  • The Cost Of A Funeral
  • A Written Estimate
  • How To Pay For A Funeral

  • To Be Or Not To Be...Cremations

    Cremation has become popular in 21st century Britain, but the church has not always been in love with the idea. So is cremation acceptable, or is it right to uphold the tradition of burial?

    A few hundred years ago the Church of Rome burnt the bodies of some ‘heretics,’ hoping that when Christ returned, it would be impossible for them to be resurrected. But 2000 years since Jesus ascension, many are not concerned about cremation, believing that from dust we came, to dust we shall return.

    On this journey of discovery, we will begin thousands of years ago with Abraham, and will continue to present day.


    Burnt Offerings

    Some have suggested that the first and best-known mention of a ‘cremation’ (burnt offering) is in the book of Genesis, where Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on top of a funeral pyre Genesis 22:1-18.

    An angel stepped in and told Abraham at the last minute to stop - God had seen Abraham’s heart and that he was willing to do anything for Him, believing that Isaac (the son of the promise) could come back to life. This proposed cremation is followed by reports of others throughout the Old Testament.

    The Israelites as part of their worship to God had to perform sacrificial burnt offerings of sheep, oxen, birds etc. The animals were killed first, a ritual in its self and then they were burnt according to various rules and regulations Exodus 20:24, Leviticus chapter 1, Numbers 7:15-87 and Numbers 8:12.

    Generally speaking the word ‘burnt’ and ‘people’ combined are often used in a negative connotation - often used as a form of punishment to kill or defile, (whether the person was dead or alive). An example of this is seen when the godly King Josiah defiled the altars of Baal and burned the bones of the priests - upon their own altars, so as to desecrate them 2 Chronicles 34:1-5.

    Molech was a god (which we know as a demonic being - as all false gods are) who the Canaanites sacrificed their living children too, ‘passing them through the fire’ see Leviticus 18:21 and Jeremiah 32:35. This was expressly forbidden by God.


    Examples Of Cremation

    A judge called Jephthah made a foolish vow before God. He said that if God would give him victory against the people of Ammon, then whatever came out of the door of his house first on his return from battle would be offered as a burnt offering.

    Tragically for him his only child, his daughter came out to meet him. He explained to her what he had vowed and she accepted her fate, but asked for a two month stay so that she could lament her fate on the mountains with her friends Judges 11:31-40. No doubt this was a massive mistake to make and fulfil a foolish vow.

    After King Saul and his sons had been killed, their bodies were rescued from enemy territory. Their bodies were cremated to remove the flesh etc and then the bones were buried, 1 Samuel 31:12-13.

    Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was accused of playing the harlot, so Judah wanted her to be burned – but caught in his own hypocrisy, it turned out that he was the culprit! Genesis 38:24-26. Orthodox Judaism forbids the practice of cremation.


    Romans And Greeks

    By the time of the Roman and Greek civilisations, cremations had been generally adopted as a method of disposing of the dead. With the advent and spread of Christianity, however, and its belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavour. By the fifth century the practice had become almost completely obsolete. This is why the Romans disposed of the Christians by burning and feeding them to the lions, believing that as the body was disposed of, then there could be no resurrection.

    John Wycliffe (translator of the English Bible from the Latin) died of an illness in 1390. In 1414 Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic by the Church of Rome. In 1428 his bones were exhumed from holy ground and burnt - the ashes were thrown into a tributary of the river Avon. The Roman Catholic Church was trying to send this message out - by this act you will never be resurrected. To be a heretic was to be eternally condemned and the Church of Rome was just doubly trying to make sure that Wycliffe was damned for eternity! But they failed!


    British Cremations

  • In 1658, an English physician Sir Thomas Browne advocated cremation for the first time as a means of disposing of the human body.

  • In 1769, on the 26th September, the first recorded cremation in Britain took place. The body of Honoretta Pratt daughter of Sir John Brookes of York was illegally burned in an open grave at St George’s Burial Ground, London and a stone bearing the following inscription was erected in the burial ground, Hanover Square, London saying: “This worthy woman believed that the vapours arising from graves in church yards in populous cities must prove hurtful to the inhabitants and resolving to extend to future times, as far as she was able, that charity and benevolence which distinguished her through her life, ordered that her body should be burnt in the hope that others would follow the example, a thing too hastily censured by those who did not enquire the motive.”

  • In 1873 Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, attended the Vienna Exposition, where a working model of a cremator designed by Professor Brunetti was exhibited. He returned home to become the first and chief promoter of cremation in England.

  • In 1874 the Cremation Society of England came into being, founded by Sir Henry Thompson, with Shirley Brooks, Frederick Lebonan, John Everett Millais, John Tenniel, Anthony Trollope and Sir T. Spenser Wells representing the realm of art, science, literature and medicine.

  • In 1885 on the 26th March the first official cremation within the UK was carried out at Woking. The deceased was a Mrs Jeannette C. Pickersgill.

  • In 1886, ten bodies were cremated. Since that time the practice of cremation has steadily gained momentum.


  • India’s Widow Burning

    In India (during British rule) in the early 1800’s, it was the practice of many to burn the widowed wife alive with her husband when he died. It took twenty-four years of educational help and raising public awareness from the missionary William Carey and his friends, to prohibit this cruel and superstitious rite known as Suttee.

    They made reports to the English Government with regards to suttee, (the tradition of the immolation (the killing as a religious rite) of widows, on the burning pyre of their dead husbands). Within a radius of thirty miles around Calcutta, four hundred suttee ‘deaths’ were reported in one year alone.

    In 1825 the British Indian Governor, Lord William Bentinck, finally outlawed the practice of suttee and a proclamation was sent throughout the land in both English and Bengalese saying, “The practice of suttee or burning or burying alive the widows of Hindus is hereby declared illegal, and punishable by the criminal courts.”

    In India today, especially around the Ganges River cremations are performed publicly (also in parts of Nepal) and the human remains are thrown into the river. Some bodies (depending on who the deceased is, or how they died), are not cremated or buried, but are wrapped in cloth and floated down the River Ganges where they gradually decompose.


    The British Struggle With Cremation

    The history of cremation therefore, is the history of a struggle against conservatism, custom and prejudice; a struggle to reform the burial system and restore cremation to its former legal and popular usage. This task undertaken in Britain over one hundred years ago is nearing successful completion, as cremation in its modern, scientific form is now accepted by over 71% of the population [UK, 2003].

    The British funeral industry is worth £1billion a year, with prices up 12.5 per cent during the past five years alone [1999-2004]; there has been a steep rise for burial costs due to lack of churchyard space. The average cost of a cremation funeral is at least £1,215 while a burial and funeral costs average £2,048, but prices do vary significantly on location; £2,646 in London, but just £1,545 in the South-West [April 2004]. Experts advise asking funeral directors for a written estimate of the cost for the proposed funeral, so that you can compare charges.


    From Dust To Dust

    We are made from dust and we will return to dust. Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 104:29. So whether your body is cremated and is burned into dust, or buried and rots into dust, you will still turn into dust! In Genesis 2:7 God breathed into the nostrils of man who was made from dust of the earth. So in the resurrection, He can still breathe life into our bodies.

    1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 speaks of the resurrection of those who died in Christ, who will come back with Jesus and the rapture of those believers who are still alive. Our bodies are going to be resurrected bodies, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 and will be different from our earthly bodies. When Jesus was resurrected, He was not at first recognised on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-37 and Mary at the tomb speaking to the ‘gardener’ did not recognise Him John 20:14-17. In Mark 12:25-27 Jesus speaks about the resurrection, and says that people will be ‘like’ angels.

    It would appear that it is not important how your body is disposed of - as you will get a new resurrected one anyway. What about the faithful martyrs who had been thrown to the lions and other wild beasts or burnt at the stake? If cremation is wrong then what do you suppose will happen on the day of resurrection to all the missionaries who had been eaten by cannibals? As the by-product of both these processes, their bodies will be eventually turned to dust, just the same as a decomposing body. God is the God of the impossible; but what is really important is whether you die right with God or not. Is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life?


    United Kingdom Death And Cremation Statistics

  • In 1885 there were 597,357 UK deaths, only 3 persons were cremated.
  • In 1900 there were 126 444 UK deaths, 670 or 0.52% were cremated.
  • In 1925 there were 538,348 UK deaths, 2,701 or 0.50% were cremated.
  • In 1950 there were 574,297 UK deaths, 89,558 or 15.59% were cremated.
  • In 1960 there were 588,032 UK deaths, 204,019 or 34.70% were cremated.
  • In 1970 there were 638,834 UK deaths, 353,957 or 55.41% were cremated.
  • In 1980 there were 644,684 UK deaths, 420,717 or 65.26% were cremated.
  • In 1990 there were 629,629 UK deaths, 438,066 or 69.58% were cremated.
  • In 2000 there were 611,960 UK deaths, 437,609 or 71.51% were cremated.
  • In 2002 there were 608,079 UK deaths, 437, 124 or 71.87% were cremated.


  • Types Of Burials Mentioned In The Bible

  • 1. Sarah was buried in a cave. Genesis 23:19.
  • 2. Abraham was buried in a cave. Genesis 25:9.
  • 3. Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse was buried under a terebinth tree. Genesis 35:8.
  • 4. Jacob, Joseph’s father (later known as Israel) was embalmed and then placed in a coffin as was the Egyptian custom. Genesis 50:2-3.
  • 5. The bones of Joseph were taken from Egypt during the Israelites exodus and buried in a field in the Promised Land. Joshua 24:32.
  • 6. Eleazar the son of Aaron was buried in a hill. Joshua 24:33.
  • 7. Gideon was buried in the tomb of his father. Judges 8:32.
  • 8. The prophet Samuel was buried at his home in Ramah. 1 Samuel 25:1.
  • 9. King Saul’s body and that of his sons were recovered from the enemy, and then semi-cremated to remove the flesh, but the bones were buried under a tamarisk tree. 1 Samuel 31:12-13.
  • 10. Asahel a foot soldier was chasing Abner, when he turned round and killed him. Asahel was then buried in his father’s tomb. 2 Samuel 2:22-23, 32.
  • 11. Abner, chief of staff, was laid in a coffin, and a funeral procession was held in honour of David’s former enemy (who had been unjustly killed). 2 Samuel 3:31-36.
  • 12. Absalom the ‘enemy rebel’ son of King David, was killed by his chief commander, and was cast into a pit in the woods - which was then overlaid with a pile of stones. 2 Samuel 18:17.
  • 13. King Manasseh was buried in his own garden. 2 Kings 21:18.
  • 14. King Asa was buried in his own tomb and was laid in a bed which was filled with spices and various ingredients prepared in a mixture of ointments. 2 Chronicles 16:14. Then they made a great burning for him (burning of the spices. 2 Chronicles 21:19b).
  • 15. The sons and daughter of Judah died gruesome deaths. They were not buried, but lay on the ground as refuse, and to be eaten by the birds of the air and by beasts of the field Jeremiah 16:4.
  • 16. After a large battle in Israel (by attacking Gog) the bones will be collected and buried in a mass grave in the valley of Hammon Gog. Ezekiel 39:11-15.
  • 17. Jesus was wrapped in strips of linen with spices as was the custom of the Jews and was then laid in a borrowed tomb. John 19:40-41. Praise God that death could not hold Jesus, “He is not here for He is risen!” Matthew 28:6.


  • Burial Options In Britain

    Burial options for Britain are...

    1. Churchyard burials: In 2004 the average price was £958 including funeral directors and ministers. This does not include the plot, the cost of which ranges from £118 at Lon Newydd cemetery in Anglesey, Wales to £3,025 at Highgate cemetery in London.

    2. Cremation: The average cremation service lasts between 30 and 45 minutes and costs £225. Ashes can be buried, kept in an urn or cast over a favourite spot, a field or out to sea.

    3. Eco burial: The body is placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in a wood. The burial spot is then marked by a tree, plant or bench. There are more than 150 burial sites; average cost is £517.

    4. Sea burial: A license is required and there are only two places around the UK coast where sea burials are allowed - The Needles, Isle of Wight and Newhaven, East Sussex.


    The Cost Of A Funeral

    Cremation is cheaper than burial and is chosen by about 70% of people in the U.K.

    Burial in a Church of England churchyard is usually cheaper than in a municipal cemetery, but most churchyards have little space left. In the central areas of large cities burial fees may increase to several hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of pounds.

    The type of coffin greatly affects the cost - from cardboard through to MDF, woven coffins and the most expensive - made from mahogany. Memorial installation charges for Church of England Churchyards range from £16 for a small wooden cross to a cremation tablet or vase at £66 and £124 for any other memorial including inscription.

    Burial funeral costs are rising by 12.5 per cent a year and cremation costs by 6 per cent. But there are novel ways to cut costs including using the internet. Many UK-based sites can help you set up your own web page for a full obituary - this will work out much cheaper than using the press and can include photos videos and music. For the few, it is also possible to arrange a burial on your own property.

    In general crematorium fees are £150 to £300 and the doctors’ certificates required cost £101. A minister’s fee for a funeral service in a church in £81 while burial in a churchyard ranges from £145 to many thousands of pounds. Grave-digging costs up to £250 and newspaper announcements, flowers, catering, service sheets, organist’s fees, removing the body from home, limousine charges and a casket for cremation all cost significant amounts. Many find themselves spending countless thousands as they say goodbye to their beloved.


    A Written Estimate

    Experts advise asking funeral directors for a written estimate of the cost of the proposed funeral. Research has found a difference of more than 130% in the quoted price and what the client ends up paying. The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) advise; “To be sure you get the best value possible, contact at least two funeral directors in your area for an estimate of the funeral costs or obtain a price list from their offices in order to make a comparison. Don’t assume all companies charge the same.”

    There are several options to save for the cost of a funeral, including: pre-paid funeral plans (but read the small print carefully), a specific life insurance policy that covers funeral costs or a friendly society which pays out a lump sum when death occurs.


    How To Pay For A Funeral

    If the cost of the funeral is to be met from the estate of the deceased person, banks will normally release funds from their accounts. In the UK, State help is also possible through various benefits, but there are strict rules on the amounts payable and who can receive them. The two main benefits are: funeral payment, which is a one-off payment based on your circumstances and not those of the deceased; bereavement payment, which is a one-off payment based on the late spouse’s National Insurance contributions (bereavement allowance, for the spouses is based on the late husband or wife’s National Insurance Contributions but various rules apply). Funeral Directors can advise on the qualifying criteria and the likely contributions available for these three benefits.

    Funeral Planning Authority
    National Association of Funeral Directors


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