In the UK, the annual number of cremations exceeded burials for the first time in 1968. Since then cremation has increased considerably. Current figures suggest that around 70% of all funerals are cremations, with some urban areas exceeding that figure. This means the 250 crematoriums in the UK are exceptionally busy, which unfortunately can sometimes lead to a feeling of a conveyor belt funeral, with one group entering the crematorium as the previous group leave.
Cremation basically involves the incineration of the body at very high temperatures, with only a relatively small amount of ash left at the end, for the family to either keep, bury or scatter - (see Options for Ashes section).
Practiced in many ancient civilisations, it wasn't until the advent and spread of Christianity and its belief in the resurrection of the dead, that cremation fell into disfavour during the 4th century, and by the time of the fifth century, had become almost completely obsolete. Modern cremation began again in the late 1800s with the invention of a practical cremation chamber. Championed by Queen Victoria's surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, and driven by public concern for hygiene and health and clerical desires to reform burial practices, crematories slowly began opening.
Today many Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic church allow cremation. The Pope lifted the ban on cremations in 1963 and in 1966 made it permissible for Roman Catholic priests to conduct a cremation service at a crematorium. While cremation is forbidden by Orthodox Jews and Muslims, it is the usual method of disposal for Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, and as crematoria ceremony halls are non-denominational, you can have the person conducting the funeral and ceremony of your choice.
It should be mentioned that there are concerns on the environmental front as to how much pollution this form of disposition produces. Recently passed legislation aims to cut emissions from crematoria in the UK by half by the end of 2012. This will hopefully be achieved by upgrading old crematories and advances in technology, and although cremation has been seen traditionally as cheaper than burial, the investment needed in the industry could push prices slightly higher.
NEWS UPDATE - Funeral Pyres (10th Feb 2010) - although this section is focused on "modern" cremation, it must be noted that open air cremation on a Funeral Pyre is seen by some cultures and religions as essential to a "good death" and the release of the spirit into the afterlife. Today, saw the first steps towards Funeral Pyres in the UK becoming a reality again. After a lengthy court battle, Mr Davender Ghai (a Hindu) won a decision at appeal, that stated that in principle, Funeral Pyres could be conducted within existing UK legislation (if conducted within an open air building). It's still not set in stone, and the judgement goes on to state that the difficulties which may be thrown up by planning and public health legislation, should an application be submitted, had not been considered as part of the judgement.
The possibility of it happening however, is now one step closer and as in Ancient Britain, Funeral Pyres could become a common occurrence in this country once again; for Hindu's, and anybody else who fancies it for that matter.