On this day in history : 26th March 1885 – The first official British cremation takes place at Woking Crematorium in Surrey…. It is the first of only three cremations in this year….

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Woking Crematorium – Image courtesy of PicturePrince via Wikimedia

With the arrival of Christianity came the belief that cremation was a Pagan practice that made resurrection after death totally impossible…. However, by the late 19th century attitudes were changing – albeit very slowly…. Burial grounds were fast filling up – and there were those who raised concerns about the hygiene of burials…. Victorian funerals were elaborate, extremely expensive affairs – and for many, unaffordable….cremation offered a cheaper alternative to burial…. However, there were plenty who were terrified of the idea – of not actually being dead and being burned alive….

Woking Crematorium was founded in 1878 on land purchased by Sir Henry Thompson, Physician to Queen Victoria and a founder and President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain…. Seven years later the first cremation was to take place – that of a woman identified in The Times only as ‘a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles’….

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Sir Henry Thompson

The woman in question was writer and painter Jeanette Pickersgill…. Born Jeannette Caroline Grover in Amsterdam around 1814, she had married Henry Hall Pickersgill, an English artist, on the 20th of July 1837, in Soho, London…. Jeanette was an accomplished artist herself, her work being exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1848 – 1863….

Her cremation took place six days after her death – which had been certified by two doctors to be on the ‘safe side’ – and the cremation process was completed within an hour and a quarter…. Hers was the first of three cremations performed in 1885 – a year that saw a total of 597,357 recorded deaths in the United Kingdom….

In 1892 a further crematorium was established in Manchester, followed by Glasgow in 1895 and Liverpool in 1896…. By 1901 there were six functioning crematoriums – but even so, out of 551,585 deaths that year only 427 bodies were cremated…. London’s first crematorium, at Golders Green, came into operation in 1902…. Nowadays over 70% of those who die are cremated….

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