Once Fashionable with Pagans and Vikings, Cremation Was Outlawed until a Century Ago When Mrs Pickersgill of Woking Made It Respectable. Today, It Is Britain's Favourite Way to Go

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL HANLON

PRINCESS MARGARET'S instruction that she must be cremated rather than buried has been hailed as a controversial break from Royal tradition.

She will be the first senior member of the Royal Family not to be buried or interred since the death of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's daughter, in 1939.

Yet Margaret's decision is in line with a growing trend away from burials in favour of what is seen as a quick, cheap and clean alternative by most of the British public.

It seems incredible now - when more than 70 per cent of people choose cremation over burial - that as recently as the late 19th century, cremation was viewed with horror and distaste. Its introduction - or more correctly, reintroduction - into modern Britain came about only as a result of one of the most bizarre legal cases in our history.

Since Viking times, cremation had been almost unknown in Europe, condemned as a pagan barbarism by the Christian churches.

But in 1883, the eccentric Doctor William Price, an 83-year-old Welsh Druid high priest, cremated his five-month-old son - who had been christened Jesus Christ - in accordance with what he believed was Druid practice.

The police viewed cremation as an illegal activity and Price was arrested and hauled before the South Glamorgan Assizes in Cardiff. But Mr Justice Stephen ruled that cremation was legal provided that 'no nuisance' was caused to others and the case went in favour of Dr Price.

His victory paved the way for the reintroduction of a practice that stretches back into prehistory. In espousing cremation, modern Britons are emulating their forefathers, the people who built Stonehenge and worshipped long-forgotten gods and goddesses.

No one knows when cremation first became used as a way of disposing of bodies. Ancient humans and Neanderthals buried their dead but the burning of remains became widespread across Europe and the Near East during the Stone Age. Elaborate cremation urns dating from 3000 BC have been found in It was the Romans who adopted cremation with enthusiasm but, by the time Rome became Christianised in the fourth century, burial had almost completely replaced burning except for rare instances of plague or war.

FOR THE next 1,500 years, cremation remained rare in the West. Other cultures continued with it, particularly the Hindus who incorporated the practice of 'sutee' which involved the cremation of living widows on their husbands' funeral pyres.

Cremation was also used by the pagan Vikings who burned the bodies of their noblemen on special ceremonial boats, built to carry the remains of kings to Valhalla, the home of the Norse gods.

It wasn't until the 18th century western Russia.

that a growing number of Britons were beginning to wonder if the practice of burying people underground might be less than ideal.

When it was established that diseases could be caused by microbes, doctors and scientists pointed out that burying thousands of rotting corpses a few feet underground in the middle of Europe's burgeoning cities might constitute a public health hazard.

In Britain, the first sign of renewed interest in cremation was in 1658, in an essay entitled Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne, a Norwich doctor.

A century later, Honoretta Pratt, a daughter of Sir John Brookes of York, wrote about the possible dangers from bodies rotting underground and polluting the air. She left instruction that her remains be burned and her wishes were carried out.

Cremation remained a matter of speculation, discussion and experiment among a few intellectuals and scientists until technical advances in Italy made mass public cremation a realistic possibility.

Various attempts were made to perfect a reliable and efficient way of disposing of bodies by fire.

At the Vienna Exposition in 1873, a Professor Brunetti of Italy demonstrated a cremation chamber, called a retort, which did the job with the minimum of fuss. …