Memorialising cremated loved ones – the case of Yorkshire

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In this latest Remember Me blog, Co-Investigator Dr Nicholas J. Evans, explores the impact the UK’s first municipal crematoria had upon the changing face of memorialisation in Northern Britain.

January 1901 did not just herald the demise of Britain’s then longest serving monarch, Queen Victoria, it also signalled the end of the Victorian celebration of death and the elaborate ritual both at home and abroad that had dominated the era’s fascination with a ‘good funeral’ and a fitting memorial to the dearly departed. Whilst Victoria arguably advanced memorialisation to a new height during her long reign, and especially after the loss of her beloved Albert half a century earlier, the high mortality of her subjects during the second half of the nineteenth century presented great challenges for urban planners. A cornerstone of Victorian life, a good funeral, led to policy implications for town planners as the ability accommodate the continued demand for yet more cemetery space in ever crowded British towns and cities presented a real challenge. As an article in The Sunday Times in 1845 proclaimed “WHERE SHALL WE BURY OUR DEAD?”.

On 2 January 1901 a new, and scientific, way of disposing of the dead was made available to the British public. Cremation had been a mainstay of part of the British World since the English had arrived in Asia from 1600. However the limited number of Hindu and Sikh worshippers living here limited its practice, especially in Britain where it was frowned upon as “un-Christian”. Yet following the opening of Britain’s first, privately run crematoria in 1878, and first cremation in 1885, things began to change. Public Health officials were concerned that within a generation large towns and cities would quickly run out of spaces to bury the dead. In Hull, the fabled third port of England, though there was some reluctance towards burning corpses from specific religious and ethnic minorities, cremations slowly emerged as new a way of handling the dearly departed after the countries first municipal crematoria, and second throughout Britain, opened.

As reported in The Times on 4 January 1901, ‘A new municipal crematorium, the first to be owned by a corporation, was opened on Wednesday in Hull by the mayor. It adjoins the Hedon Road Cemetery, and special facilities will be given to the poorer classes of the community by providing cremation at low rates’.[1] Yet as local newspapers reported, despite its affordability, potential users showed equal uncertainty about crematoria – probably because the “charges, including the urns, would only be the same as for an ordinary internment.”[2] Unlike other technological innovations this new advance was not universally embraced. Even during civic speeches at the Hull Town Hall on 2 January 1901 the Hull Daily Mail reported “The speeches… if they do not convince everybody all at once, as to the superiority of cremation, are absolutely conclusive that the Hull Corporation have done a wise and timely thing in leading the way in the matter of municipal crematoria.”[3] As Medical Historian Dr George Patrick has observed, a quarter of a century after the Hull Crematoria had opened the number of cremations had only risen to 25.[4]

Along with the new infrastructure required to cremate the remains of approximately one body per week, new methods for memorialising the dead also arose. Without a body how would the dead be marked? And should space be provided that friends and relatives of the deceased could pay their respects to? And given the secularised handling of the body, whereabouts could such a memorial be located? One thing was certain, they could not be laid to rest in consecrated grounds!

The answer, in the case of Hull, was an extension to the eastern boundary of the town’s Hedon Road cemetery. Situated near the eastern boundary of the town – just a stone’s throw from the Alexandra Dock that had opened in 1885 and the new Hull Jail that had opened in 1870. Separating the town’s expanding population from this “scientific innovation” was essential. The smoke omitted during the cremation process was seen by many as a toxic pollutant in an area where industrialisation also helped reduce the life expectancy of residents. A new chapel (shown below) was erected and a road for the procession mapped out. In a ceremony on 30 October 1899, Samuel Cohen, the former Mayor and Head of the Burial Committee unveiled a stone marking this progress in the death industry.

1 - Britain's first municipal crematoria in Hull
Britain’s first municipal crematoria in Hull. Copyright Nick Evans
2 - Opening stone of the Hull Crematorium in 1901
Stone commemorating the opening of the Hull Crematorium in 1899. Copyright Nick Evans

If there was one thing the Victorians could do well it was putting on a “good funeral”. Yet for Victorians, obsessed with displaying mourning, the lack of a burial plot presented new challenges for the bereaved relatives “left behind”. The answer at Hull came in the unusual form of The Columbarium, that from 1901, formed a respectful and public place to store urns holding a deceased ashes. For a fee plots costing £5 5 shillings or less encased in concrete the ashes of mourners. As the local Hull Daily Mail observed “[I]t is a point of honour amongst many poor people, that their dear ones must have not only a habitation but a name amongst the dwellings of the dead. Practically, the only way of securing this, at present, is the purchase of a gravestone, whereas should cremation become general, arrangements might be made for the provision of a small tablet near the remains which would fulfil all requirements at a cost far less than is necessitated by the smallest and plainest gravestone.”[5] Marble, sometimes metal, covers – much smaller than normal headstones – were supplied by local monumental masons and, like graves, loved ones could even purchase a space in advance so that two relatives could be buried alongside one another. Eventually expanding to cover an area of half an acre became a new folly to the dead. In the corner of the main Hedon Road cemetery some of the region’s leading scientists quickly embraced this “new” mode of commemoration and the landscaping of the burial “niches” — at over £600 — nurtured a new sense of what a “decent” burial comprised.

Surveying the epitaphs some years after the Columbarium at Hedon Road had closed, with a new, much larger Columbarium opening on the Chanterlands Avenue, in the north of the city, in 1936 – the gendered aspect of the practise is quite noticeable. Men vastly outnumbered women. And the education profile of those memorialised was unusually high, and included a greater number of scientists and academics. Alongside the personal or demographic details of the deceased occupations and places of birth were more common than on gravestones. Engineers, scientists and politicians were all marked in the new form of memorialisation. They joined the unfortunate crew of disease ridden steamships plying the imperial trade routes between Asia and Britain. The latter six members of the SS Fairy died, their memorial notes, in 1901 and their bodies were cremated abroad before being “safely” stored in Hull by their eleven surviving members of crew. Some ashes were clearly later moved, for on occasion empty spaces make it possible for the observer to see the internal dimensions of the structure encasing cremated remains. All however showed a new face in memorialisation practices – years before other cities followed Hull in the “new fad” for cremated rather than burying the dead. Resembling, according to the Hull Daily Mail “part of a land which has been subject to volcanic eruption. There are numbers of craggy rocks and peaks rising in the air, some of great size.”[6]

4 - The memorial to the victims of disease aboard the SS Fairy. The cremated remains of the crew were some of the first in Britain to be memorialised in a publicly owned cemetery.
The memorial to the victims of disease aboard the SS Fairy. The cremated remains of the crew were some of the first in Britain to be memorialised in a publicly owned cemetery. Copyright Nick Evans.
3 - The Columbine, Hull. Designed as an appropriate way to memorialise cremated remains
The Columbine, Hull. Designed as an appropriate way to memorialise cremated remains. Copyright Nick Evans.

After the First World War, as mourning practices across Britain changed significantly and it became accepted practice that not everyone could visit the site where their loved ones were laid to rest, the number of cremations steadily grew. With the move of the city’s crematorium to Chanterlands Avenue a more “standard” approach of marking the dead emerged. The ashes of the deceased were now scattered over the memorial garden. A much smaller “plaque” noting the most basic of details became the mode for recording the deceased at the city’s new Columbarium, situated in the adjoining Northern Cemetery. Memorial books also enabled the anniversary of the passing to be noted for a fee. Nevertheless even as late as the 1970s only 60 per cent of the people living in Hull chose to be cremated. Memorialisation continued to adapt to the times. Yet increasingly the second Columbarium ran out of space for the precious ashes of cremated people to be marked in a dignified manner. New methods of memorialisation including plaques on public benches, standard roses, and other forms of dedicated objects have become mainstream. However, by 1990 Hull’s Northern cemetery and crematorium had run out of space for such markers. Instead the City Council returned to the former site of the UK’s first public Columbarium to offer the bereaved a space to sponsor an appropriate marker to the deceased.

Over a century after the first public crematorium opened its doors cremation has become the mainstream mode for British funerals. The deceased are regularly marked in personal ways, fitting to the memory of the deceased. Markers for hire close to the cremation site are often purchased for five years – longer if the families pay to renew a memorial. Yet families, social groups and friends are often turning to ever more innovative ways to memorialise the dearly departed. There have probably never been more benches erected along the seaside front than at any time in history. Invariably they are not provided by the local authority but instead sponsored by individuals seeking to mark their cremated relatives who often lived far away and yet had happy memories when they were alive of visiting that place. As those at Scarborough, forty miles north east of Hull, record, the seaside resort was the place individuals honeymooned, holidayed, worked, played or walked the dog.

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Dr Nicholas Evans is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the University of Hull. He is presently Co-Investigator of the AHRC funded project ‘Remember Me? The Changing Face of Memorialisation in Britain’. He can be contacted via n.j.evans@hull.ac.uk.

[1] The Times, 4 January 1901, p. 6, ‘A MUNICIPAL CREMATORIUM’.

[2] Hull Daily Mail, 2 January 1901, p. 3, ‘First Municipal Crematorium – Opened in Hull Today’.

[3] Hull Daily Mail, 3 January 1901, p. 2, ‘Hull First!’.

[4] George Patrick, A Plaque on You, Sir! (Hull: George Patrick, 1981), p. 99.

[5] Hull Daily Mail, 3 January 1901, p. 2, ‘Hull First!’.

[6] Hull Daily Mail, 24 December 1902, p. 5, ‘Niches Instead of Tombs – A View of Hull’s Columbarium’.

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