Cremation Society of Great Britain Archive

  • 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 , Romanian , Russian , Serbo-Croat , Swedish
  • Physical Description
      76 metres

Scope and Content

Materials deposited cover the breadth of the Cremation Society’s history and activities from its foundation up until 2014, though the strength of the collection is in its twentieth century records. The collection includes the contents of theSociety’s Library holdings of books, journals, pamphlets and trade literature. The research interests of the Society are extensive and, as well as early propaganda material, it includes resources extending from developments in cremation practice, tobereavement and architecture. Parliamentary papers and official publications, including the developments in the statutory forms for cremation which the Society established, are filed separately.

Additional printed material in the collections include an extensive series of cuttings books which begin prior to the foundation of the Society, and represent popular topics and issues around the theme of the disposal of the dead throughout theSociety's history. These cuttings also show the Society's continuing interest in the cremation movement overseas.

The archive covers the administration of the Society, its accounts, finances and constitution, as well as the administration of the Cremation Friendly Assurance Society from its establishment, to member lists and changes in the constitution.

Correspondence is extensive and includes general enquiries from the public and researchers, between Society members, and the Society’s administrative correspondence. There is particular emphasis on the development and arrangement of the CremationSociety Annual Conferences. The Society also keeps information and correspondence from similar authorities and related organisations involved in all aspects of cremation, interment and bereavement. Topical correspondence files contain the Society’sresearch, information and correspondence regarding a broad range of subjects, advisory boards and projects. For example the Society has been very active in the establishment and architecture of new crematoria; it has been pivotal in the acceptanceof cremation in a number of religions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church; the Society has also been active in consultations regarding environmental impact studies, particularly in the reduction of mercury from cremation emissions, so topicalfiles cover the extent of this research and engagement.

There is also an extensive collection of letters, promotional material and background information on cremation which has been created and collected by the Society. Information files are likely to have been created and retained for backgroundinformation for Pharos, of which many files include relevant clippings. Similarly, there is a sequence of survey results and questions sent to crematoria in the UK and cremation authorities worldwide for statistics published in Pharos.

The archive has a strong international character with a series of overseas correspondence which reflects the fact that the Society has had close contacts with cremationist bodies in other countries since its foundation. During the course of itshistory a number of Cremation Society members have acted as representatives on the International Cremation Federation's council and the Society’s holdings of International Cremation Federation (ICF) paperwork is included. These include Congress,executive and general council meeting minutes and agendas, official correspondence, and correspondence between members of the ICF council.

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 ofGreat 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 populationdensity, 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 thepresent 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 somebetter method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation. Signatories included Sir Henry Thompson, Shirley Brookes, Frederick Lehmann, John Everette Millais, John Tenniel, Anthony Trollope and Sir T. Spencer Wells.Membership of the Society was constituted by subscription to the declaration with the main aim being to collect and disseminate information on cremation and best practice.

Progress of the cremation movement

Following legal advice to the effect that cremation was not illegal, the Society began to look for land on which to build a crematorium. An acre of land was purchased in Woking which already had established rail links for funeral transportationand a large well-known cemetery. In 1878 the first crematorium in Great Britain was erected and tested using the body of a horse.

The project faced much opposition, particularly from the Home Office. The Home Secretary forbad further experiments without Parliamentary approval and the legality of cremation was in doubt. The work and progress of the Society was halted andthe crematorium at Woking was not opened until 1885 following a legal case in which they had no involvement.

Dr. William Price, aged 83, was arrested in 1882 for attempting to cremate the body of his infant son. At the trial, cremation was pronounced legal by the judge, provided that no nuisance was caused to others.

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 GreenCrematorium 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 burialauthorities to establish crematoria.

The 1930s saw a number of developments for the Society including the launch of the cremation assurance scheme which enabled the pre-payment of funerals in instalments and the establishment of the journal Pharos which has been published quarterly ever since.

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.

The Society's activities

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. TheSociety has also worked alongside government offices as advisors.

In the 1930s 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 regularinstalments 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 wastransferred.

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 ofCrematoria has been appearing (with some variation in the title) since 1970.

In 2008, the Society amended its Memorandum and Articles of Association to allow for the promotion of other methods of disposal of the dead which may offer viable adjuncts to cremation, particularly those which offer environmental advantages.

Involvement with other cremationist bodies

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 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 untilit became autonomous under the name Federation of British Cremation Authorities.

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 1935named 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 CremationFederation (see below), 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, whichstill 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 hadequal representation), enabling a united approach to the lobbying of government departments on cremation issues. In 1962, by the purchase of shares, the Society reacquired control of the London Cremation Company, which had been taken over in 1958 bya 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 website

International Cremation Federation

The International Cremation Federation was established in London in 1937 with the basic aim of promoting good practice in cremation. The annual Congresses are held in a host country which is decided at the previous Congress. Congress usuallycoincides biannually with a General Council meeting. The General Council is the main policy making body of the organisation and acts as the forum where votes on the Federation’s policies are cast. The Executive Committee conducts business as decidedin the General Council. Members of the Executive Committee are elected every three years and consist of a President, General Secretary, Treasurer and Vice President. At the 2003 Congress in Barcelona a restructure of the ICF was proposed andsubsequently in 2005 the ICF formed three Regional Committees. The chairman of each Regional Committee is also a member of the Executive Committee. The Cremation Society is a member of the ICF and some Society members have acted as representativeson the ICF council.


The archive has been arranged into the following categories:

  • A. Periodicals. Includes the society's own serial publications, Report of the Council [with accounts], Transactionsof the Cremation Society, Report of Proceedings [of the] Cremation Conference, and Pharos.
  • B. Books and dissertations.
  • C. Pamphlets.
  • D. International Cremation Federation (ICF) publications, congress papers and some correspondence
  • 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 oflectures, etc. Also includes a large series of topical files which cover related and subjects of interest. Categories are not watertight and overlap may occur; for example, ICF periodicals in CRE/D may, in isolated cases, appear in CRE/C. Likewise,pamphlets in CRE/C may duplicate or complement material in CRE/P/7. Where these overlaps may be substantial, a note has been made at series level.

Access Information

Open for consultation

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the Cremation Society of Great Britain, 1998, 2015.

Other Finding Aids

The papers are catalogued online online catalogue

Printed material can be found on the Library catalogue

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. TheLibrary will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Appraisal Information

Duplicate material has been weeded and some larger series of documents have been sampled.


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]) Davies, Douglas J. & Mates, Lewis H. Encyclopedia of Cremation (London: Ashgate, 2005)

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