The Cremation Society keeps very careful statistics of the number of times each of the crematoria in the UK are used, and publishes them on its website. The very first cremation in the UK was in Woking in March 1885, and between then and 1899 there were a total of 1,976, a tiny fraction of the over 8 million deaths in England and Wales in that period, just 0.024 per cent, or one in every 4,100 deaths.
Since then, however, the number of cremations has increased steadily, as has the number of crematoria, from four in 1900 to 13 by 1914. Over the next 15 years to 1914, the rate of cremations increased to 0.14 per cent, or one in every 700 deaths, and over the 15 years 1915 to 1929 to 0.46 per cent or one in every 200.
Today, in 2017, the latest year for data, four-fifths, 80 per cent of all deaths in England and Wales are cremated, spread across 291 crematoria.
The numbers began to increase very rapidly in the 20 years after the end of World War Two, as shown in the diagram, partly because burial plots were becoming scarcer and much more expensive.
The cremation rate is not as high in Wales and Scotland, in both of which about two-thirds of deaths are cremated, nor in N Ireland or the Channel Islands where between a fifth and quarter of deaths are cremated. In each country the percentage has increased since the turn of the new century. The overall UK percentage in 2017 was 77 per cent of deaths, or a total of 470,000 cremations.
The Church of England has been taking funerals in crematoria probably ever since crematoria opened. Actual records of numbers began to be collected only in the year 2000, of both church funeral services and those taken at crematoria. Some ministers undertake a very large number of crematoria services both for church members and those outside the church. In 2017 they took 14 per cent of all the services held in crematoria, a percentage that has been declining – in 2000 they took more than twice that proportion, 34 per cent, a third of all the crematoria services.
In addition C of E clergy took over 78,000 funerals, which with the crem services amounted to over a quarter, 27 per cent, of all deaths. The number of church funerals taken has also fallen but not as rapidly as crem funerals; in 2000 the C of E clergy took nearly half of all the funerals in England, 46 per cent.
Since 2002 the Methodists have also recorded the number of funeral services their ministers take, whether in church or at a crematorium. In that year together they took 30,300 services, or a service for 6 per cent of all deaths, including representation at 4 per cent of all crematoria services. Their numbers have also declined, taking 18,000 services in 2016 (2017 figures not yet available) or 4 per cent of all deaths, their rate of decline being almost the same as the change in Anglican-led funerals.
The Roman Catholics are the only other denomination to publish death numbers, which are given as the number of deaths rather than the number of funerals taken by their priests. The Cremation Society, however, keeps a separate tally of the number of Roman Catholic cremations that are held. In 2015 there were 14,700, 42 per cent of all their deaths.
Estimating for all other denominations would suggest that perhaps just under a quarter, 22 per cent, of all crematoria funerals had a Christian service. The average cost of a cremation in the UK in 2018 was £783, according to the Cremation Society.
This low percentage reflects the growing popularity of “non-religious” funeral events (many would not even wish it to be called a “service”) that still take place in crematoria but without a religious leader, for example, a Humanist funeral (although Humanism is now recognised as a religion). In place of a religious leader “professionals” can be hired to take non-religious or atheistic cremations, though no figures are known for such.
The UK percentage of 77 per cent of deaths ending in cremations is higher than across the world in general, insofar as it is measured. It is not measured in China or India for example. Across 24 European countries the percentage of cremations in 2015 was 46 per cent, across the Americas (dominated by the United States) it was 49 per cent, and across eight countries in Asia (including Japan), where teeming populations take up precious land, it was 92 per cent.
Across the world in the 39 countries where cremation data is available it was 58 per cent in 2015.
Dr Peter Brierley may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.