Time to privatise cremation?

Charles 5 Comments

Over in Apple Valley, Ca, Stephen Atmore, 11 years retired from the local phone company, has gone back to work. He’s opening a crematorium in a strip mall and trying to get his head around it: I still wake up every morning asking myself why I am doing this.

Like a lot of people in the death business he was inspired to get stuck in as a reaction against the exploitative practices of service providers which he experienced when two close family members died. He was further affected by the spectacle, common enough in the US, exceedingly rare in the UK, of families on the side of the road advertising car washes to help pay for a funeral.

Says Mr Atmore: “This is for the economically challenged families who don’t want to and can’t spend the money on cremations.”

He’s not set his prices yet, but he’s going to keep them as low as he can.

He’s providing a service which no one in the UK is allowed to offer. You can bury people as a freelancer over here, but you can’t burn them. Under the terms of the 1902 Cremation Act only a local authority (Local Government Board) can do that:

The powers of a burial authority to provide and maintain burial grounds or cemeteries, or anything essential, ancillary, or incidental thereto, shall be deemed to extend and include the provision and maintenance of crematoria:

Provided that no human remains shall be burned in any such crematorium until the plans and site thereof have been approved by the Local Government Board, and until the crematorium has been certified by the burial authority to the Secretary of State to be complete, built in accordance with such plans, and properly equipped for the purpose of the disposal of human remains by burning.

The model of a British crematorium doesn’t work. In order to be more or less fuel efficient it must burn as many bodies as it can in a day. But because the incinerator is attached to a ceremony space it must hurry people through with indecent haste. It’s a thinly disguised production line which can’t, when winter comes, even keep up. You pay for the ceremony space whether you want to use it or not. Your fee is further inflated by a sum used to subsidise the maintenance of the cemetery.

What’s more, for the poorest people in Britain the state provided funeral payment will almost certainly fall short of the full cost. A budget cremation service would make all the difference.

Why should a Brit not be permitted, like Mr Atmore, to offer an alternative to that provided by the state? With local authorities increasingly contracting out their crematoria to big corporates like Dignity and Co-operative Funeralcare, there’s already more than a whiff of privatisation in the air.

How, under the Cremation Act, will it ever be possible for anyone to build a pyre for open-air cremations? This who want to do it must be thinking it through. I hope one of them will tell us.

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Tony Piper
Tony Piper
13 years ago

Private companies are already operating in this space: Dignity already own several crematoria as do Memoria (http://www.memoria.org.uk).

I haven't had time to check the current version of hte act – http://www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc3/StatutoryLaw/Act93-02.html – but it may be that they got special dispensation. Worth investigating. IMHO it's only a matter of time before we have direct cremation companies operating from industrial estates (but not strip malls).

Charles Cowling
Charles Cowling
13 years ago

Thank you, Tony. I had this idea that Dignity and Memoria (Howard Hodgson rides again!) operated under licence from local authorities. I'll check out your link.

However distasteful some people may find direct cremation, there are others for whom it will be a choice of both head and heart. Bring it on.

13 years ago

Charles, can you let us know the result of your research? It would seem simple enough to have two ore even three ceremony spaces per cremator, and lengthen the time slot. Or am I being £naive?

13 years ago

Hello Charles, Interesting point! As some folks may not know it, it’s helpful to state that once a cremator is up to temperature, the combustion of bodies is extremely fuel efficient. I believe Ken calculated that at 7 cremations a day the fuel ‘breaks even’ and there’s no fuel wasted on warming up the cremator. When living people are cold because they have no heat, conserving fuel in this way is very sane and appropriate. Private crematories seem like SUVs to me – they’ll burn more fuel, cost more money, and be reserved for the wealthier who want the long… Read more »


[…] few weeks back I lazily asked whether a private entrepreneur could open a crematorium in this country. I say lazily because I hoped someone would know the answer and spare me research […]