Cre­ma­tion his­tory

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With ref­er­ence to Diane Brown’s let­ter (‘A Se­ri­ous Un­der­tak­ing’ – De­cem­ber 2015) and your re­quest for de­tails of cre­ma­tions prior to 1753, I have found some.

I had read that Mrs Honoretta/ Hen­ri­etta Brooks Pratt (16761769) was be­lieved to be the first recorded (il­le­gal) Bri­tish cre­ma­tion (25 Septem­ber 1769) in St Ge­orge’s Church­yard, Hanover Square, Lon­don – how­ever, it ap­pears now that Mr Richard Cooke, Sur­geon, was cre­mated be­fore Mrs Pratt (Arnold, Cather­ine, Necrop­o­lis, Pocket Books, 2007, page 227).

I found a few ear­lier cre­ma­tions also: cre­ma­tion ex­isted in Moscow, Rus­sia. In May 1606, Vasily Shuisky and the bo­yars de­posed and killed the ‘False Dmitry’, then dis­played his body in Red Square prior to cre­ma­tion and the fir­ing of his ashes from a canon to­wards Poland ( Warnes, David, Chron­i­cle of the Rus­sian Tsars, Thames and Hud­son Ltd, Lon­don, 1999, page 53).

In 1428 the ashes of John Wy­cliffe (1331-1384), English Bi­ble trans­la­tor, were thrown into the River Swift near Lut­ter­worth (af­ter he was con­demned as a heretic by the Church of Rome in 1415). Dic­ta­tor/Consul Julius Cae­sar (100- 44 BC) was also cre­mated in the Fo­rum, Rome, af­ter his as­sas­si­na­tion (Ides of March 44 BC).

The first Bib­li­cal ref­er­ence de­scribes my grand­fa­ther’s home as be­ing “very dirty, chil­dren also dirty and noth­ing in the house”. Other an­ces­tors were also recorded as “heavy drinkers, work­shy and wasters”. Th­ese records make dis­tress­ing read­ing and re­flect the Glas­gow of the times, as well as other big cities when there was no NHS or wel­fare ben­e­fits. to cre­ma­tion is when Abra­ham (tested by God) pre­pared a fu­neral pyre for the sac­ri­fice of his son Isaac – Gen­e­sis 22 (v 1-14). Sue Bur­rell, by email Editor replies: Many thanks for those ex­am­ples of early cre­ma­tions Sue. It seems that there are plenty that pre­date – some by hun­dreds of years – Richard Cooke’s 1753 cre­ma­tion that Diane wrote into us about!

While there are lots of guides etc about how to re­search your fam­ily tree, I am left won­der­ing whether enough at­ten­tion is given to the emo­tional aspects of what you find and that feel­ing “if only I was there then I could have saved them”.

Lastly, my thanks go to the car­ing staff at The Mitchell Li­brary who were very sup­port­ive and pro­vided me with much-needed tis­sues. Pa­tri­cia Cur­ran, by email Editor replies: I know what you mean, Pa­tri­cia, it can be dis­tress­ing – even at a cou­ple of cen­turies re­moved – to read about our an­ces­tors suf­fer­ing. Glad to hear that the staff at the Mitchell Li­brary were sup­port­ive. For more rea­sons to visit your ar­chives turn to page 18.

A de­pic­tion from 1557 of Isaac be­ing saved from his father, Abra­ham

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