The development of cremation in England 1820-1990 : a sociological analysis.
This thesis examines the development of cremation in England,
the first Christian country to cremate, rather than bury, the
majority of its dead. It offers the first full length account
of cremation in England.
The thesis first compares the social setting of funerals in
simpler and industrial societies. It then examines successive
developments in Roman Catholic policy towards cremation and
compares contemporary modes of disposal in selected European
countries, emphasising the differing role of specific social
The history of cremation in England is traced from 1820, when
the social problems of rapid urbanisation challenged the
Churches' monopoly in the disposal of the dead. The development
of local authority cemeteries after 1850 is presented as a
critical point in the secularisation of death.
After legalisation in 1884, the acceptance of cremation was
slow, only 9% of funerals by 1945. Thereafter, local
authorities rapidly and successfully promoted cremation which
first outnumbered burial in 1967. The thesis examines the
causes of this rapid change. It estimates the effects upon
cremation practice of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Contemporary choice between burial and cremation is examined
from the perspective of 58 families, bereaved in 1988-9. Fieldwork
was conducted in a Fenland village and in an East Midlands
city. Disposal decisions are revealed as taken on grounds
meaningful in family terms and rarely with a religious
The funeral is a critical focus for social and conceptual
attitudes to death. In developed societies, the traditional
functions of the funeral have been reduced and the social
threat of death mitigated, by such factors as greater
longevity, the professionalisation of death work, the changing
role of the family and the reduced salience of religion.
Through its analysis of the replacement of burial by cremation,
this thesis offers a further understanding of the relationship
between death and social structure.