Cremation Society of Great Britain Archive

Archive Collection
  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 33 CRE
  • Dates of Creation
      1822 onwards
  • Language of Material
      English ; French , German , Italian , Spanish , Czech , Danish , Dutch , Finnish , Hungarian , Icelandic , Norwegian , Rumanian , Russian , Serbo-Croat , Swedish
  • Physical Description
      50 metres (including 14 metres of papers)
  • Direct Link

Scope and Content

The archive contains the society's records and papers from its foundation up to approximately its centenary in 1974 (with the exception of certain series which it has retained for administrative purposes), together with its library of books, pamphlets, periodicals and ephemera. The principal pre-1974 record series not deposited comprise membership records, signed forms of desire for cremation, and claims registers and records (relating to the payment of cremation fees, the society's membership certificates having a value which may be the full cost or part of the cost of cremation). The archive has a strongly international character, reflecting the society's close contacts with cremationist bodies in other countries ever since its foundation.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Cremation Society of England was founded on 13th January 1874 by Sir Henry Thompson, physician to Queen Victoria, and a number of his friends. In 1930 it was renamed simply the Cremation Society, to emphasise its application to the whole of Great Britain, and its name was changed again in 1974 to the Cremation Society of Great Britain.

Although cremation had been widely used in the ancient world as a means of disposal of the dead, it fell into disfavour as Christianity spread, with its belief in the resurrection of the dead. The 19th-century increase in urban population density, with concomitant sanitary problems, brought a revival of interest. Sir Henry Thompson and his fellow founders of the Cremation Society set out their aims in a declaration: We, the undersigned, disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements, by a process which cannot offend the living, and shall render the remains perfectly innocuous. Until some better method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation.

The newly founded society acquired land at Woking for erection of a crematorium, but there was doubt about the legality of cremation, and in 1879 the Home Secretary forbad further experiments without Parliamentary approval. In 1882, however, at the trial of the eccentric Dr. William Price, aged 83, for attempting to cremate the body of his infant son, named Jesus Christ, cremation was pronounced legal by the judge, provided that no nuisance was caused to others. In 1885 the society opened Britain's first crematorium, at Woking.

The following decades brought steady success for the society's campaigning efforts. By 1895 crematoria had opened in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. In 1900 the London Crematorium Company was founded, to establish what became Golders Green Crematorium on land acquired by the society. In 1901 the first municipal crematorium opened, at Hull, and in 1902 the first Cremation Act was passed for the regulation of burning of human remains, and to enable burial authorities to establish crematoria. In 1963 the papal ban on cremation was lifted, and from 1966 Roman Catholic priests were allowed to officiate at cremation services. In 1968 the two hundredth British crematorium opened. By the society's centenary in 1974, its original campaigning objectives had been achieved, and cremation had won general public acceptance.

Since its foundation the society has campaigned vigorously for the cremation movement on public platforms, in the press, through publications and conferences, and through involvement with other cremationist organisations throughout the world. In the thirties the society's activities also included the launch of a cremation assurance scheme, designed to make cremation affordable by the widest possible spectrum of society, by enabling people to pre-pay their cremation fee by regular instalments without the need to become members of the society. The scheme continued in its original form until 1950, when a change in the society's constitution brought into being the Cremation Assurance Friendly Society, to which the assurance was transferred.

Since its inception the society has also been very active as a publisher, producing both campaigning literature and periodicals and directories. Transactions of the Cremation Society appeared from 1880 until 1935, since when it has been succeeded by the society's journal Pharos. Its Directory of Crematoria has been appearing (with some variation in the title) since 1970.

In 1922 the first conference of British cremation authorities was held under the society's auspices, and in 1923 the Federation of Cremation Authorities in Great Britain was founded, operating within the framework of the Cremation Society until it became autonomous under the name Federation of British Cremation Authorities. In 1932 the society ceased to be a cremation authority itself, when it transferred ownership of its Woking crematorium to the London Crematorium Company, the body responsible for running the Golders Green Crematorium.

In 1933, in an attempt to bring together all the organisations concerned with the disposal of the human dead, the society was instrumental in bringing about the formation of the National Council for the Disposition of the Dead (from December 1935 named the Council for the Disposition of the Dead). Until the council came to an end with the outbreak of World War II, it shared the society's premises. The society was also a participant in the foundation in 1937 of the International Cremation Federation, for which, alternating with cremation bodies in other countries, it at times provides the secretariat. In 1938 it instituted its series of annual conferences for both professional and non-professional cremationists, which still continues.

In 1946, when the headquarters of the Federation of British Cremation Authorities was transferred to London, the Cremation Council of Great Britain was created (a joint consultative committee on which the Federation and the Cremation Society had equal representation), enabling a united approach to the lobbying of government departments on cremation issues. In 1962, by purchase of shares, the society reacquired control of the London Cremation Company, which had been taken over in 1958 by a trading company not previously associated with cremation, thereby arousing some (unfounded) fears of commercial speculation; the Woking and Golders Green crematoria thus returned to their original ownership.

Further information about the society, together with a short history and bibliography of cremation in Britain, is available on its Web site


The archive is being arranged in the following categories:

  • A. Periodicals. Includes the society's own serial publications, Report of the Council [with accounts], Transactions of the Cremation Society, Report of Proceedings [of the] Cremation Conference, and Pharos.
  • B. Books and dissertations.
  • C. Pamphlets.
  • D. International Cremation Federation (ICF) publications and congress papers.
  • E. Funeral orders of service.
  • F. Crematoria: Directories of crematoria, and brochures and short studies of many individual crematoria and cemeteries in countries throughout the world, including much statistical information.
  • G. Trade literature: A small selection, illustrating attitudes to death and remembrance.
  • H. Cuttings and scrapbooks: A substantial collection, arranged broadly chronologically, including manuscript correspondence, and much pictorial material.
  • J. Photographs and lantern slides.
  • P. Papers: The society's minute books, accounts ledgers, correspondence (including a substantial quantity with cremation societies in other countries), papers concerning the Council for the Disposition of the Dead, reports, surveys, texts of lectures, etc.
These categories are not entirely watertight, however; for example, category D includes ICF periodicals, some single issues of serial publications will be found in categories C and E, and some more substantial studies of particular crematoria are located in category B.

Conditions Governing Access

Those sections which have been sorted and listed are available for consultation. Access is also possible by prior arrangement to material in those sections which are still being sorted.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the Cremation Society of Great Britain, 1998.

Other Finding Aids

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the society via the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail, and, where appropriate, from other copyright owners. The Library will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Appraisal Information

In progress, as sorting and listing proceeds.


Further deposits of material which the society no longer requires for current administration are expected from time to time. New issues of Pharos are added as they appear.


Cremation Society of Great Britain, The history of modern cremation in Great Britain from 1874 (Maidstone, [1974])