The right to cremate a body was established in 1884 by the remarkable William Price. When Price was brought to court on a charge of cremating his son in public, the judge ruled that burning a dead body is not a misdemeanour unless it constitutes a public nuisance. The London-based Cremation Society had until that time been deterred from firing up its crematorium at Woking for fear of prosecution. As one authority has written, “The worthy, social elites who founded the Cremation Society played their part in the movement – but it took Price’s shamanic balls of steel to actually do the deed.” Indeed, establishing the legality of cremation was very much a Welsh achievement (see Williams v Williams).  

The verdict in the Price case paved the way for the Cremation Act 1902 which forbade anyone to “knowingly carry out or procure or take part in the burning of any human remains” anywhere but a crematorium, a crematorium being defined as “any building fitted with appliances for the purpose of burning human remains,” including “everything incidental or ancillary thereto.”

Nevertheless, when, in 2005, David Wrigglesworth cremated his mother in his back garden, Judge James Stewart QC said: “By burning her body, you did not, the public may be surprised to hear, commit a criminal offence.” The grounds for this judgement were the same as in the Price case: no public nuisance was proved.

In 2010 Davinder Gai won the right to be burned by traditional fire on a pyre within a structure with sunlight shining directly on his body.

As a result of the Gai case, the Ministry of Justice hastily directed that “the way is not now open automatically for funeral pyres to be held. Burning bodies anywhere other than in a crematorium notified to the Secretary of State for Justice remains a criminal offence.” See letter here.

This is disputed. Legal authorities give the opinion that:

Cremation laws do not prevent one-off open air pyres

No planning permission is required for a one-off pyre

If there is uncertainty on the law, and the Crown Prosecution Service decides to take a case to court, the judgment would have to be in favour of the Defendant because any uncertainty about the actual wording of the law and its meaning must tip the balance in their favour.

There is nothing in law about pyres having to be away from public view.

John Bradfield, (who was involved in the Davinder Gai case), believes that it would be illegal to have a pyre in a place where a member of the public would suddenly and unexpectedly find they are very close to and can see a body burning on a fire, e.g., simply by walking along a public footpath.

If you want to run the risk of burning someone on an open-air pyre, be sure first to submit an application for cremation to a local crematorium. This will enable you to demonstrate that the person who died was not murdered and spare you prosecution on a serious charge. You will have make an appointment for the cremation (which you will not show up for, obviously) and pay the full fee. The registrar, failing to receive notification from the crematorium that the cremation took place, will subsequently enquire of you whether disposal has been accomplished. How you respond is your affair. Were you to say, for example, that you changed your mind and buried the person on private land, it is possible that this would suffice.