Leading the World: The Role of Britain and the First World War in Promoting the "Modern Cremation" Movement

By Kazmier, Lisa | Journal of Social History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Leading the World: The Role of Britain and the First World War in Promoting the "Modern Cremation" Movement


Kazmier, Lisa, Journal of Social History


At the 1971 conference of the International Cremation Federation (ICF), one British delegate consulted another regarding the advisability of the first speaking during a session. The second delegate, probably Kenneth G.C. Prevette, the general secretary for the Cremation Society (of Great Britain), wrote a response for his colleague's eyes: "No harm if he asks you. We do lead the world!" (2)

What did Prevette mean? The remark referred most simply to the fact that, within the ICF, Britain had exceeded all other countries in their practice of cremation. The nation's use of cremation had surpassed the practice of burial by 1968, a figure neither matched by any other member country nor within any other "westernized" country. (3) By 1964, ICF officer and Cremation Society member P. Herbert Jones said Great Britain "occupies the leading place" in terms of cremation with its 42% rate. (4) Moreover, Britain's Cremation Society published the ICF's journal since its inception in 1937, and representatives such as Prevette also served the ICF. Prevette himself stood as the ICF's Secretary-General and a vice president from 1979-84; he also received an OBE in 1983. (5)

The British contribution had proven vital long before cremation in Britain "led the world." Subsequent statistics appeared natural given the Cremation Society's strong early position within the ICF. Jones, in fact, had argued that the ICF had become "absolutely necessary" from a practical point of view. Jones suggested a mutually beneficial relationship had begun. Jones certainly acted from this belief later when he saved the ICF in more ways than one. (6) Each side needed the other for the sake of legitimacy and credibility. Yet each also needed something more in order for society to accept this shift in commemorative practices; that something was the First World War.

By 1971, ICF members associated "modern cremation" with industrial appliances and auxiliary rituals. The former seems straightforward--"modern" being equated with furnaces and cremulators (machines that refine bone fragments prior to scattering) as well as distinct, even novel, architectural structures housing such devices. Left out were Japan and India; such countries did not provide "modern cremation" nor had groups then belonging to the ICF. More importantly, British crematoria operators after the Great War offered ancillary, memorial materials, applying ideas that emerged from remembering absent bodies during and after the war. Ultimately, the use of cremation with these items directly led to the performance of rituals at sites that bore little relationship to the location of human remains. British crematoria offered symbolic graves; their Cremation Society--and the ICF through them--facilitated a full utilization of wartime improvisations.

Further, by 1971, the ICF had latched onto the history of cremation in Britain as central to its own mission. To "lead the world" fully fused the fortunes of Britain's group to the ICF, aiding the ICF during a vulnerable postwar period. If Britain leads, then the ICF can minimize contributions from nations of questionable postwar status in relation to cremation, particularly Germany and Italy. The ICF had a stake in endorsing the British group's history and incorporating that narrative--and its approach to the wider public--within itself. To understand this, one must see both sides of the relationship, i.e., how Britain came to "lead the world" and its significance to the ICF.

Britain's Cremation Society Establishes Itself During the Age of Empire

Those who have contemplated where and how "modern cremation" arose often start with the launch of Britain's Cremation Society by Sir Henry Thompson because Thompson generated unprecedented public interest. (7) Thompson launched the Cremation Society of England after his articles appeared in the Contemporary Review in January and March 1874. (8) In his first piece, Thompson did not tout his own invention of a crematory furnace; rather, he attempted to explain why, for sanitary reasons, among others, cremation had merit and needed to be discussed, tested and ultimately adopted.

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