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John Clarke

Historian of Brookwood Cemetery

The Encyclopedia of Cremation

Encyclopedia of Cremation

Encyclopedia of Cremation

Edited by Douglas Davies and Lewis Mates

Published by Ashgate, 2005

ISBN 0754637735

Price £65.00

Buy at amazon uk

The subject of cremation is highly topical, judged by the recent spate of books. 2005 saw the publication of Brian Parsons’ Committed to the Cleansing Flame (Spire Books, 2005), the first history of the early days of the Cremation Society; there is Peter Jupp’s wider survey of cremation in Britain, From Dust to Ashes: Cremation and the British Way of Death (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); there is Hilary Grainger’s Death Redesigned: British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape (Spire Books, 2006), a survey of the architecture of cremation; whilst the Encyclopedia of Cremation (the subject of this review), presents the first single volume survey of the subject.

The encyclopaedia provides ‘a broad account of the nature of cremation across the ages and within many different societies’. It is arranged in typical alphabetical format, with an index which in some cases unnecessarily duplicates the main entries (eg Ghana, Mormonism, vampires), but also serves to draw out topics which might otherwise be overlooked (eg body snatching, cricket, fear, pets). There are some valuable appendices which cover cremation statistics (international in scope recording in most cases annual figures down to 2002); an international chronology of cremation from 8000BC to 2003; principal Cremation Society archive sources; and a very useful bibliography.

The main entries include sections on most countries of the world which helps fill a gap in the literature, since there is no major English language survey of the growth of cremation from a European or international perspective. These sections also provide useful perspectives on local cremation practices (eg China now cremates 4.152 million bodies, being a cremation  rate  of 51%).  There are also sections on a number of overseas cremation societies which add further depth to the national entries. Other sections cover the legal, mechanical, engineering and architectural aspects of cremation, along with the design of cremators and crematoria. And the encyclopaedia does not overlook such diverse topics as crime, execution, film, fraud, Guy Fawkes, gypsies, humour, and even an entry devoted to the Ashes (curiously located under “T” for “the” rather than “A” for “Ashes”).

Despite its scope, the encyclopaedia is inconsistent in its coverage. There is no separate entry for Woking Crematorium, but there is one for Golders Green. Whilst several pioneers of the Cremation Society of Great Britain merit their own entries (William Eassie, Hugh Haweis and Sir Henry Thompson), the Duke of Bedford (who assisted the Cremation Society most generously with money and built his own private crematorium at Woking) does not; and although the Duke is mentioned under the main entry for the Cremation Society, his name does not appear in the index. Similarly, Edward White, a pioneer designer of gardens attached to crematoria (and some that are completely detached, such as the Glades of Remembrance at Brookwood) has no entry of his own, although his work is referred to under the entry for Gardens of Remembrance. Yet White remains buried there since there is no entry in the index, requiring the reader to know about his work, and therefore where he is most likely to appear in the text.

The encyclopaedia falls down on illustrations. Given the high cover price, most readers would expect considerably more than eight black and white photographs. True, there are some line drawings within the text, but of the eight photographs, five cover just two crematoria, Bordeaux and Stockholm. Rather more thought should have gone into the pictorial aspect of the encyclopaedia since the limited range of illustrations does little to reinforce the text.

Overall this is a valuable single-volume work of reference. However its high cover price may prove a deterrent to some potential readers who may agree that the limited range of photographs does not make it attractive enough to buy.

Copyright © 2006, 2007 by John M. Clarke All Rights Reserved