HC Deb 30 April 1884 vol 287 cc959-97

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, the Bill which he had the honour to ask the House to read a second time might be briefly described as a measure for the protection of society against the concealment and destruction of evidence of homicidal crime. In no country in the world—in no civilized country—were the laws which regulated burial so devoid of anything like effective security for the detection of foul play as in our country. Of late there had been brought before the public a novel mode of disposing of the dead, in the shape of cremation, which, totally unregulated, afforded even greater facilities than burial for the concealment of deeds of violence and wrong-doing. Within 18 months no fewer than four bodies were publicly cremated in England, and a distinguished Judge had laid it down from the Bench that there was nothing whatever illegal in cremation, even when practised in the most objectionable and irregular form. Since then the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere), expressed his individual dislike to the practice, and stated that he would exercise whatever power the law placed in his hands for the purpose of its prevention; but since the right hon. and learned Gentleman made that announcement another body had been publicly cremated, and he did nothing to prevent, and had done nothing to punish the perpetrators, of that act—an act which in that case, as everybody must admit, was contrary to public, decorum and decency.


Where, where?


In Wales.


That was before my answer to the hon. Member for Northampton.


No; it was attempted before, but it was done after the declaration of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. His inaction must, therefore, if he were aware of the fact and of the statement of law laid down by Mr. Justice Stephen, be accepted as a practical endorsation of the statement of the law laid down by that Judge, and a practical confession of his utter powerlessness to interfere in the matter. The object of this Bill was to afford something like a proper guarantee for the treatment and prevention of foul play in cases where the dead were disposed of by burial, and to provide for the regulation of cremation, which, uncontrolled as it was at present, was fraught with danger to the public, but which, under proper regulations, the promoters of this Bill believed afforded a chance of effecting a most desirable reform in the mode of disposing of those hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, which the harvest of death each year threw upon our hands. Their Burial Laws provided an elaborate machinery and certificates, and most people were content to imagine that they provided every precaution that could be required or provided; but anyone who looked into them would find it was an utter delusion to suppose that those laws provided adequate securities for the ascertainment of the cause of death or for the detection of foul play. Large numbers of people in this country died without having had any medical attendance whatever. Sometimes they received as much as was necessary to procure a worthless certificate; but many thousands were buried without the formality of any certificate at all as to the cause of death. The attention of the public and of the Government had been repeatedly drawn to this subject. So far back as 1843, Mr. Chadwick, in his Supplementary Report on Intramural Burial, dwelt on the necessity for the amendment of their Burial Laws; but nothing had been done. In 1851, in their Report on Extra-mural Sepulture, the Board of Health reported on certain defects in the present system of the registration of death, and the facilities consequently afforded for the perpetration of crime, to which they said their attention had been called by numerous witnesses of all classes. The Report of the Board of Health on Extra-mural Sepulture, published in the previous year, 1850, drew attention to the fact that, although the number of still-born infants at that time was estimated at 40,000, there was no provision whatever with regard to their burial; and only in one cemetery reported on in 1850 was there any rule requiring the production of any certificate that the child was still-born. The child alleged to be still-born was, without a certificate, and for a small fee of 1s. 6d. or 2s. handed to the sexton, interred without as much as an entry in the cemetery books. The law had been amended in this respect; but it was still very unsatisfactory in others, and the Returns of the Registrar General showed that in the last year for which his statistics had been prepared and presented to the House there occurred in England and Wales alone no fewer than 20,194 deaths in which persons were buried without any medical or other certificate as to the cause of death. That fact pointed to gross neglect. He found that in Ireland there occurred 2,229 cases in which death was certified after inquest, and 4,289 cases were entered in which the cause of death was ill-defined or not specified. In Scotland the state of matters was a great deal worse. According to the last Report of the Registrar General in Scotland, 20 per cent of all the deaths that occurred in that country were not certified. This, he was aware, involved an exaggeration, the result of the manner in which the Returns were made up; but in Glasgow, in 1882, 9 per cent of the total number of persons who died were buried without any certificate whatever as to the cause of death; in 1872–3, out of a total of 29,200 deaths that occurred in Glasgow during those two years, no fewer than 3,281 were either buried without any medical certificate as to cause of death, or were entered as without any medical attendance. A most remarkable fact brought out by their most painstaking medical officer of health, Dr. Russell, was that of legitimate children under five years only 28 per cent were uncertified, while among illegitimate no fewer than 52 per cent of the deaths were uncertified. In Scotland that state of matters was made worse by the fact that they had no Coroners, and the Procu- rator Fiscal would not look into any case, however mysterious the cause of death might be, unless he believed death had resulted from some criminal act. There was no family in Scotland who would not look upon an attempt by the Procurator Fiscal to view a body in a private house as tantamount to a charge of murder. The matter was brought under the notice of the Government 40 years ago by Mr. Edwin Chadwick in the Report to which he had before referred, and which contained extracts from the evidence of such well-known men as Dr. Scott Alison, Mr. William Chambers, and Mr. Hill Burton, the historian, which showed the scandalously lax nature of the Scottish law as to the verification of the cause of death and the investigation of mysterious and suspicious occurrences. Those opinions showed the thoroughly unsatisfactory state of our law as regarded the verification of the cause of death incident to burial. It was a popular delusion that the detection of poison by exhumation was always possible. It was perfectly true that fractured bones remained to testify to deeds of violence for a number of years; but purification speedily set in to destroy the softer tissues. Certain poisons might be discovered in the bodies of persons buried for months and years after burial; but the subtle organic vegetable poisons, and even some non-organic poisons, such as phosphorus, participated in the decay of the victim, and consequently could not be traced. Moreover, modern scientific research had shown that putrefaction in fermentation in animal matter gave rise to sepsine and other alkaloids of a poisonous nature. It was necessary to be very cautious about forming a conclusion from physiological tests as to the presence of poison in a body. The fact that animals died after the administration of substances extracted from the viscera of persons exhumed in a state of putrefaction did not prove that the viscera contained poison before putrefaction set in. Taking these facts into consideration, the supreme importance attached to a prompt verification of the cause of death was apparent; and in France, Germany, and other countries its importance was recognized by the existence of the official known as le médecin vérificateur It had been recommended by the Board of Health in this country that health officers should attend in all private houses, verify the cause of death, of an inmate, and report any suspicious circumstance to the public authorities. This, however, would be too expensive and inquisitorial a system if universally applied; and he, therefore, proposed that it should only be resorted to in cases in which no certificate of death was produced. If everything was correct, the burial officer would certify to that effect; if not, the case would be reported to the Coroner in England and Ireland, and the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland, officers whom he did not desire to supersede. As such a system, however, might cause delay in burials in rural districts, he thought that such districts might, for the present at any rate, be exempted from its operation. He did not say the Bill met all the shortcomings of our wretched Burial Laws; but he claimed it would be a step in the direction in which reform was most urgently required, and which might be met by existing machinery without offending popular susceptibilities. Now, he came to the proposals in his Bill which, dealt with, the subject of cremation; and, that being a novel method of disposing of the dead in this country, he felt himself at liberty to suggest precautions which would be intolerable in the case of the old-established custom of burial, and which would afford a security for the detection of foul play infinitely superior to anything which it would be possible to engraft upon the slovenly system of their Burial Laws. At the present moment cremation in this country was absolutely uncontrolled, except so far as it might give rise to a nuisance, or lead to a disturbance of the public peace. There was no regulation of it, no certificate was required, and consequently it might be performed in any place and by any person. Captain Hanham, for example, cremated his mother and his wife in his private grounds in Dorset; and he himself, when he died, was cremated in the same place by his friends. Dr. Price, the so-called Welsh Druid, cremated his child on an open fire on a Welsh mountain; and he had announced his readiness to undertake the same duty for any other person. The English Cremation Society had erected a crematorium at Woking. That Society had hitherto abstained from commencing active operations, owing to the uncertainty of the law on the subject, and to the attitude taken up by the Home Office. But it had now announced that, in consequence of the judgment of Mr. Justice Stephen, it was prepared to undertake the cremation of any body sent to it. The Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers had appointed a Committee to consider the propriety of erecting a crematorium at Ilford. Now, though he had not the smallest doubt, from the constitution of the Cremation Society of England, which embraced amongst its members some of the most eminent men in the Legal and Medical Professions, that any cremations undertaken by it would be conducted with the most perfect regard to public security and decorum; and though, if the Commissioners of Sewers erected their crematorium at Ilford, the same remark would apply to any cremations conducted under their auspices—these bodies would be the first to admit that it was impolitic to intrust absolute discretion in a matter of such importance to any society or irresponsible body of men, and still more to any eccentric individual like Mr. Price, or even to more intelligent enthusiasts like the friends of Captain Han-ham. He (Dr. Cameron)proposed, therefore, that the Secretary of State should license places to be used as crematoria, and that it should be an offence punishable by heavy penalties to burn a body in any place not licensed for the purpose. He proposed that no cremation should be allowed without a special permit from the registrar of deaths, to be granted only on the production of a medical certificate given by the personal attendants on the case, or after a post mortem examination, and given under heavy penalties in case of any false statement, to the effect that death had resulted from natural causes, and that there was no doubt on the point that the cause of death was so and so, and that there was no reason whatever to suspect that it had been accelerated or caused by any criminal act. In addition to this, he proposed that the Home Secretary should be empowered—if the right hon. Gentleman did not covet the duty he was sure some of his Colleagues who had not very much to do might be found to take it off his hands—the Judge Advocate General, for example, who had shown a natural talent in that direction, might possibly be induced to undertake it—to frame regulations. These regulations would naturally deal with such subjects as the prevention of anything like precipitancy or indecorum in the conduct of cremations. He thought they might very properly also provide for the investigation, by some independent official, of every case in which cremation was asked. He thought that in cases where cremation was desired we might very safely introduce something analogous to the Continental system of médecins vérificateurs. The official might inquire in the circumstances of the case, and might be empowered, in case of anything suspicious transpiring, to suspend the disposal of the body temporarily until an examination had been made. Now, there was not the smallest difficulty, from a medico-legal point of view, in making cremation infinitely safer, so far as public security was concerned, than anything that was found under our present Burial Laws, even with any improvements which it would be possible to engraft upon them. There only remained, therefore, he thought, to discuss the policy which should guide the Government in dealing with the subject. It might be dealt with in three ways. It might be regulated, or the law on the subject might be left as it was, or it might be prohibited altogether. The arguments against leaving the law as it stood, in his mind, appeared to be insurmountably strong. The legality of cremation did not rest solely upon the judgment of Sir James Stephen, for the opinions of the highest authorities in the possession of the Cremation Society had been given to the same effect. In his judgment in the case of "Williams v, Williams," Mr. Justice Cave inferentially admitted the legality of cremation; and in their correspondence with the Cremation Society two successive Home Secretaries had not ventured to assert that cremation was illegal. One of them proposed, in certain circumstances, to introduce a Bill making it illegal; and that showed that in his mind there was nothing at present illegal in it. Nor was the legalization of it a matter of recent date. As it was legal now, so it was in the last century, when, in 1769, the body of Mrs. Pratt was cremated at Tyburn Cemetery. But the fact of the legality was now universally known; and there was nothing to prevent any criminal who thought he might get rid of evidence of a crime from availing himself of it. Especially was this the case with the crime of infanticide; whereas, in a case recently reported at Scarborough, it had always been a common practice of murderers to get rid of the bodies of their victims by burning them in domestic fire-places. It seemed, to his mind, needless to contend further as to the inexpediency of leaving the law as it stood. The question was, therefore, whether the practice should be regulated or prohibited altogether? To regulate cremation would be to follow in the steps of every civilized nation that had hitherto dealt with the subject. To prohibit it, in his opinion, would be to take a reactionary step, one fraught with total disregard of the teachings of sanitary science and of the sacredness of individual liberty; and which would mark us as the least enlightened, as regarded the problem of how best to dispose of our dead, of all the great countries of the world. Cremation was legal in the United States of America, and in many of the large towns there crematoria had been erected. It was legal in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. A public crematorium was in 1874 erected by the Municipality of Vienna; and the Municipality of Lisbon, where cremation was optional, had decreed that during epidemics cremation should be compulsory. In. France an order had been given to cremate the remains of hospital patients which had been dissected; and he had a Bill there, which was interesting as having been the last of M. Gambetta before the French Chamber of Deputies, proposing to render cremation generally optional in France. Now, wherever the subject of cremation had been discussed an overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion had been in its favour. As to the Home Secretary's statement that cremation was repugnant to public opinion in this country, he could only say that during the last few months the subject had been very largely and widely discussed in the Press of this country; and, so far as public opinion was reflected in the Press from The Times down to Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, it had been almost unanimously expressed in support of optional cremation. He did not mean to say that if this Bill became law, and crematoria were established tomorrow, that there would be any great general rush to get cremated. Public opinion was too strong for it to become general all at once; but of this he felt certain—that the great majority of the enlightened and intelligent portion of the community were sufficiently alive to the dangers of our present system of burial, and desired to see those dangers lessened by allowing a free option for anyone who wished to dispose of his body in a sanitary way; and as to the poor, they had good reason to know the hideous scandal and indecency to which the present system of burial condemned them, and he was certain that a vast number of them would rejoice at anything which would tend in any degree to diminish the overcrowding which condemned those dearest to them to the nameless horrors of putrefaction in a common grave. But, even if only a small majority were desirous of escaping the horrors of the grave, why should they be forbidden to carry out their desire? On what grounds, in a matter where public policy pointed all the other way, were they justified in allowing a particular interpretation of public sentiment to override the sacred principle of individual liberty. The other day he had a letter from a lady residing in a fashionable part of London, who said that to her death would be deprived of half its terrors if she could be cremated instead of being buried, and it was in consequence of a similar sentiment expressed by his mother that Captain Hanham overcame all obstacles and cremated her. Why should they interfere with such a preference. On every ground of policy it would be most rational to prohibit burial rather than cremation. Thirty years ago the Board of Health, in a Report bristling with horrors, emphatically condemned the existing state of things, and they made the heroic proposal to take possession of all burial grounds and establish national cemeteries. It might be said that Burial Boards had been established and large public cemeteries opened since then. But large cemeteries existed then, too; and the Board of Health reported that, being conducted on purely commercial principles, burying as many people as possible in the smallest area, they did more harm than good. They stated that even when they wrote almost all the existing large cemeteries in London were already closely approached by the habitations of the living, the outer boundary line in some cases, as that of Norwood, being separated from the dwelling houses by scarcely more than the width of a street. The Board of Health based their recommendation not merely upon that, but upon the nature of the present system, which demoralized the poor by consigning them by scores and hundreds to festering pits described by the Board of Health, and which he had seen himself, with hardly enough earth to cover the coffins. The Report was published very shortly after the outbreak of the great cholera epidemic, and the Board of Health stated that in many instances outbreaks of cholera occurred in consequence of the proximity of inhabited districts to those burial grounds; and if anybody examined the Report in detail it would be found they had only too good grounds for making the assertion. At the time that Report was issued it might have been said that, however plausible the alleged connection of cause and effect between burying grounds and outbreaks of cholera and other epidemics might be, science could show no demonstration of it. But of late years that defect in the argument had been amply supplied, and scientific men all over the world had proved satisfactorily that that connection did exist. It had been proved that many, if not all, zymotic diseases were due to the invasion of the system by minute microscopic organisms which multiplied themselves in the blood and tissues, and gave rise to those disturbances which constituted the phenomena of each disease. It had been shown that buried in earth the spores or seeds of their organisms retained their vitality for an indefinite period, and that, if brought to the surface by the spade or through the agency of earthworms, they might find their way into the food we ate and the water we drank, and within our bodies once more renew the pestilential cycle of their existence. In medical literature many instances were recorded where outbursts of plague occurred through opening ground where patients had been buried; and in this Report and elsewhere there was ample proof of the potency of earth to preserve and spread the infections of many other diseases. M. Pasteur had recently shown in a most conclusive manner that whole districts in France had been poisoned by splenic fever owing to the burial of animals that had died of disease. The germs of disease were brought to the herbage by earthworms, and found their way into the watercourses; and scientific agriculturists of France were now discussing whether the bodies of animals ought to be disposed of by burning, or whether they might not be rendered innocuous and converted into a manure by destruction in sulphuric acid. The same with regard to yellow fever. A Commission had been recently appointed in Brazil to inquire into the nature of that disease, and that Commission had reported that it, too, was due to one of these organisms, which, under suitable conditions of temperature and moisture, was capable of multiplying itself in earth, and that churchyards in which yellow-fever patients were buried were literally hot-beds for the spread of the disease. If they took the earth from a graveyard where yellow-fever patients had been buried and washed it with water, the water would wash out a sufficient number of the organisms to convey the disease to healthy animals. Cholera was a disease with which in this country they were more concerned than with yellow fever. They had all heard of the recent discourses regarding that disease made by Dr. Koch's Commission. These showed that cholera also was caused by the invasion of the system by another of the organisms to which he had referred. Dr. Koch had shown that if matter impregnated with cholera organisms was spread upon moist earth these organisms rapidly multiply under favourable conditions of temperature; and that would explain the connection which the Board of Health had told them they had found to exist between cemeteries or graveyards and outbreaks of cholera epidemics. Professor Tyndall published a letter during the cholera scare in The Daily News, calling attention to the way in which Bristol was preserved from an attack of that disease in 1876. On the occurrence of a case of cholera there every precaution was taken. The dead body of the man who died was embedded in M'Dougal's powder in his coffin, and in this way the germs were burned and destroyed almost as effectually as they would have been destroyed had the body been cremated. If you locked up a body swarming with choleraic organisms in a lead coffin, so long as it remained there the living were free from all danger from it; but if you put the body in a wicker coffin, as in the "earth to earth" system, you allowed every facility for those organisms of disease to be conveyed into the earth and watercourses, and so afforded means for spreading disease. The only link in the chain of the argument which was wanting was, how did these organisms find their way into the watercourses and spread the diseases? Well, there was no secret in the matter. To anyone who knew anything about graveyards and cemeteries, it was needless to say that many of them were very badly drained, and that coffins in many cases lay soaked with water. Dr. Mapother, a well-known scientific gentleman in Ireland, had described the churchyards there as being generally situate on high eminences, in such a manner that the drainage from them percolated into the surrounding wells from which the residents in the various districts obtained their water supply; and the same gentleman also described one churchyard with which he was acquainted as situate upon the banks of a river from which some 30,000 or 40,000 persons drew their water supply. Again, in 1874, in consequence of some irregularities in the neighbourhood, an investigation was made into the case of the cemetery at Tooting; and it then transpired that the entire drainage from that cemetery went into a brook which flowed into the River Wandle, from which a large number of persons drew their water supply. And the same was the case with the Finchley Cemetery. Numbers of cemeteries and churchyards drained into the Thames; and he thought that would be an interesting Return which showed the number of graveyards in the Valley of the Thames which drained into the waters of that river before these waters were supplied to the inhabitants of London for drinking purposes. The only rational objection to the process of cremation was the medico-legal one. So far as the destruction of evidence of crime by cremation was concerned, that was simply and solely a question of degree. It had been shown by direct experiment that mineral poisons, such as salts of copper, zinc, &c., could be perfectly well detected in the ashes of animals poisoned by those drugs when they had been cremated. And as to vegetable poisons, the traces of most, if not of all, of them were destroyed more or less quickly by the putrefactive action of dead bodies; and if they wanted to insure the detection of vegetable poisons, they must take steps to secure what they had not at present —namely, prompt verification of the cause of death. Under the system of cremation which he proposed they would have an infinitely better chance of securing prompt verification of the cause of death than under any of the Burial Laws at present existing. So long as they allowed 20,000 to die annually and be buried in England and Wales without taking the trouble to demand any evidence whatever as to the cause of their death, although they had died under circumstances of the grossest neglect, and often under circumstances provocative of suspicion, it was absurd to argue against cremation that it might be abused as a means of doing away with the evidences of illegal causes of death. As to the skilful poisoner, it was childish to think of baffling him by preventing cremation, so long as they allowed him to remove the viscera of his victim, under pretence of embalming the body, or to deport it from this country, in order to bury or burn it outside our control, in some German or Italian crematorium. He would only add in conclusion that, in a letter written from the Home Office on this subject in February, 1882, the following sentence occurred:— In Sir William Harcourt's opinion, the practice of cremation ought not to be sanctioned, except under the authority and regulation of an Act of Parliament. On that point he was entirely at one with the Home Secretary; and for the purpose of giving effect to his and the right hon. and learned Gentleman's views on the subject he had introduced this Bill. He therefore begged to move that the Bill be now read a second time.


, in seconding the Motion, said, he had been a convert to cremation ever since he had attended the hospital and dissecting-room. He thought that, whatever conclusion the House might come to on the question, there could be no doubt it was one well worthy of its consideration. His hon. Friend had made out an impregnable case. He had shown them the dangers connected with the existing mode of disposing of the dead, and he had shown them how those dangers could be removed. This was a question of very great importance in all large and growing communities in England, where, in conjunction with Wales, there were 500,000 deaths annually. It was quite obvious that these bodies must be destroyed in some way, which simply meant their resolution into their natural elements; and it seemed to him that common sense would most naturally be in favour of the quickest process of destruction. The system of burial now carried on in this country was one which impeded, in many essential ways, this process of destruction, which ought to be quick. The process, under existing circumstances, lasted from 25 to 40, or even 50 years; whereas the process of burning might be efficiently done in less than one hour. They were all aware of the unsanitary evils which had arisen from the burial of corpses in large towns. These were recognized 20 years ago, when intra-mural interment of dead bodies was prohibited. It was calculated that London doubled its population in 50 years, so that those parts which now formed part of the suburbs would in half a century become part of the interior of the City; and they knew, further, that the air around those graveyards was laden with morbid matter, and that, as a consequence, the health of persons resident in the neighbourhood suffered, and that through their weakened state of health the inhabitants of such districts were more liable to become victims on the outbreak of epidemics than those of the healthier surroundings. The practice of cremation had been described as revolting, illegal, un-Christian, &c.; but he thought his hon. Friend had shown how important that system of destruction really was. They had heard of the dangers of the present system of burial. These dangers were bad enough in the country; but they must be specially concentrated in the commercial undertakings in London which were known as cemeteries. They knew that great overcrowding took place there. There were 20 or 30 persons put into one grave, with only a nominal piece of ground between each. If a person was not rich his grave was opened in 12 years, the bones were thrown into some adjoining field, or used for manure, or ground down, or sold to a bone merchant for what they would bring. Sentiment was rather on the side of the advocates of cremation than otherwise. They had naturally some feeling as to where they should lie; and the pictures that they saw of the old churchyard, with its mouldering monuments lighted up with evening sun or moonlight, gave expression to a very proper sentiment; but if we could take a look below the ground and see what was going on there—see the horrible and loathsome appearance of the bodies—he thought the charm of the sentiment would somewhat disappear. Even granting to the full the poetical associations of a rural graveyard, how many of us could ex- pect to be buried under such conditions? Most of us must necessarily be interred in large suburban cemeteries, and there certainly was nothing poetical about such a burial. They were carried to a place where they had never been before, a service was conducted by a person whom they had never seen in their lives, and in a very perfunctory manner, and eventually horrible desecration of the graves took place, and the remains were flung away. He invited the House to contrast that with what the process of cremation would be. The body would be taken to the crematorium, part of the service would be said, the body would then be lowered, and the process of burning would go on for about an hour. The ashes would then be removed, and the rest of the service could be said. The ashes could be put away in any way that the relations liked. They might be buried in the ordinary way; or, better still, following the old custom of the Romans, they might be put into a monumental urn and placed in the crypt of the church. The operation of cremation could be carried on with perfect decency. He had been present, along with Sir Spencer Wells, at the cremation of a horse; no one could have known that anything particular was going on; there was not a trace of smoke, and there was no smell; and the ashes which remained were white, and extremely pleasant looking. He did not know whether he would be in Order in showing the House what they were like. [Here the hon. Member produced, and held up for the inspection of the House, a small bottle filled with a white powder, which, he explained, were the ashes, not of the identical horse that he had seen cremated, but of a cow cremated some time before under precisely similar conditions.] It was cremated in one hour, and theashes had an appearance not unlike frosted silver. He believed that the sentimental argument would be entirely in favour of cremation. To borrow an expression used by Sir Spencer Wells, it was a question of purification versus putrefaction. From the point of view of crime, Sir Henry Thompson had pointed out that in doubtful cases the stomach and portions of the liver might be preserved, and it had been shown that a great many metals might be readily detected in the ashes. If this discussion had no other outcome than to show that the precautions now taken against poisoning in this country were extremely lax, he did not think that day's Morning Sitting would be thrown away. About 500,000 people died annually in England and Wales, and about 80,000 died in London. These bodies must be got rid of in some way without offence to the living. They must be buried out of sight and destroyed. It was calculated that if one body occupied each grave, it would require an acre for 1,200 persons. Therefore it was necessary to take every year from the area of land 500 acres. The country could not afford to give away so much land. Cremation was quick, clean, cheaper than burial, and more harmless to the surrounding population. Bodies could be cremated for less than 15s., while an ordinary burial did not cost much less than £10. The nation, he believed, was coming round in favour of cremation; many of the clergy advocated it; some of the Bishops were tending that way. In Italy, Germany, and even Japan, cremation was not only legal, but it was tolerably extensively adopted. All that was asked was that persons should be allowed to be cremated if they liked; this was a purely permissive Bill. He prophesied that before another generation passed away this process of disposing of the dead would be universally employed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Dr. Cameron.)


Sir, I have listened with great interest to the very able and moderate speeches of my hon. Friends who have brought forward this Bill. They must excuse me for making a criticism on those speeches; and it is that those speeches have really no relation, or very little relation, to the Bill, and that, if the main propositions of those speeches are to be accepted, this Bill ought not to be read the second time. That is rather a broad statement, but I will endeavour to justify it. Hon. Gentlemen who have listened to those two speeches will agree with me that they involve two main propositions. The first of those propositions is that the present Burial Laws are extremely defective in not providing against the improper dealing with dead human bodies, and that fair and adequate provision should be made in that respect. The second proposition is that the present method of disposing of such bodies is so injurious to the health of the public, and, as the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron) thought, the consequences of following that method are so alarming, that some other method of disposing of human bodies should be adopted. If those two propositions had been established, what should we have expected the character of this Bill to be? Why, we should have expected that it would have provided for the universal examination of human bodies before they were buried, and for the universal burning of all bodies. But the Bill provides for neither of these things, and why? My hon. Friend, being a man of experience and prudence, knows that a Bill to effect those objects would be totally and entirely impracticable. For my own part, I believe that great defects do exist in the Burial Laws of England with reference to certificates of death. Recent circumstances have brought the subject of these laws particularly under my notice, and during the last few weeks I have been examining most anxiously the operation of those laws in connection with the crimes which were lately committed in Liverpool. I was certainly astonished to hear so great a scientific authority as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow say that it was only ignorant people who supposed that poisons could be detected in the human body for a long period after death.


I did not say that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must have misunderstood me.


The hon. Member said that a great many persons disappeared, and that the existence of mineral poisons could be detected with equal certainty in the case of bodies cremated as in the case of bodies buried. I myself have only dabbled a very little in science; but I was surprised to hear that the presence of arsenic could be detected in the case of cremated bodies, because I have always understood that arsenic was sublimated by heat. It must be recollected that poisoning by arsenic is one of the commonest things in the world. [Laughter] Those hon. Members who laugh do not know as much as I do on the subject.


What I said was, that direct experiments had shown that arsenic was found in the ashes after cremation.


I am bound to take my hon. Friend's authority; but I had always supposed that fire sublimated arsenic. With reference to the present mode of granting certificates of the cause of death, I think that much greater caution should be exercised in the granting of these certificates than is the case at present; and I shall be exceedingly glad to see some well-considered measure, having for its object the amendment of the present law on this part of the subject, introduced. But this Bill contains no provisions that will strengthen the law on that point. First of all, it admits the ordinary certificate, which we know is most carelessly given in many eases. It is only where an ordinary certificate is not given that another certificate is substituted. And then there is the extraordinary proposition that the provisions of this Bill are not to apply to any place except where the population is under 5,000. If we are going to have a measure to remedy that defect, it will not be a measure like this. What was the use of taking precaution against poisoning illegitimate children, or improperly making away with them, and then to exclude from its operation the whole of the rural districts? It was impossible that Parliament could accept a measure so framed on a subject like that. One of the difficulties which my hon. Friend has felt is—where are you to get the people to make the examination? He invokes the aid of the central officer of health, who is to make the necessary examination for a foe of 5s.— that is to say, that this officer is to be expected to make a perfect analysis of a human body for 5s. In the course of events the Home Office has had occasion, in particular cases, to direct the analytical examination of human bodies; this requires the highest qualities of science, and a most difficult and expensive matter they have always found it to be. In a country village, however, it would be a simple impossibility to obtain anything like such an examination that would be satisfactory or of the slightest real advantage. The hon. Member, however, has said that these examinations would only be necessary in cases of suspicion. But in most instances the suspicion does not arise at the moment of death. In many of the cases with which the Criminal Courts have had to deal, suspicion has not arisen until months after the death, and in such cases the Bill would afford no security whatever. Therefore, as far as this part of the Bill is concerned, what I have to say is this—that I do not dispute that the present system of interment is unsatisfactory, and that I do not say that greater precautions ought not to be taken, hut that the first three clauses of the Bill are utterly inadequate to meet the evil to which the hon. Member has referred. But these clauses, which are intended to effect the reform of our system of registration, and of the granting of certificates, are merely supplementary to the main feature of the Bill, which is that which relates to cremation. Upon this subject I must entreat the indulgence of the enlightened while I endeavour to state why I am not in favour of the proposal contained in this part of the Bill. We all know that the enlightened are not very tolerant of the vulgar; but I may tell the enlightened that it is the vulgar who form the majority of mankind. It is quite true that the law of England on the subject of burial is very defective, and is practically indefensible; but still we must remember that it is only in very modern times that England has become so very enlightened. In former times there used to be a very common place quality with which we used to get on very well—that of common sense—which had its peculiar laws and habits which were adapted to inferior capacities; and when those laws and habits came to be subjected to the searching tests of philosophy and enlightenment it was found that a great many holes could be found in them. It is now said that it had been discovered that it is not illegal to cremate human bodies, and to cremate, being legal, entitles it to being authorized and regulated. That may be so; but the same assertion applies equally to many other methods of disposing of dead bodies. It is true that the judgment of Mr. Justice Stephen states that there is nothing illegal in cremation; but equally there is nothing illegal that I know of in cannibalism. That is a proposition perfectly clear. I have read the judgment of Mr. Justice Stephen on the question this morning, and it certainly goes to that extent, because it declares that there is nothing in the law which requires that a dead body should be disposed of in any particular way; and therefore to allege that this judgment is a judgment inferentially in favour of cremation is as unfair a use of it as it would be to import it as a judgment in favour of cannibalism, or any other method of disposing of the human frame. All that it says is that the law is practically silent upon the subject. But what I say is that the common usage, the common sentiment, and the common feeling on this subject has been so strong hitherto that it has been unnecessary that any particular provision should be made with regard to it. That is the real history of the law on this question. Then we come to the proposition of the hon. Member. He says that we must regulate cremation because the people of the country desire to be cremated. He challenged me for saying that public sentiment was not in favour of cremation, and asked where I found the grounds for arriving at that opinion. He says he has read all the newspapers —I have not time to do that—and that they are all in favour of cremation. Then, when he comes to the point, he admits that people would not rush to be cremated; and I cannot help thinking his study of the subject has brought him to very much the same conclusion as I had arrived at. My hon. Friend is a courageous man; he is a logical man, which is the quality of his countrymen. I observe the two promoters of this Bill are both from Scotland, and I believe its ablest supporter represents a Scottish University where we know that science has developed more than anywhere else, more particularly the science of logic; but with all his courage and ability the hon. Member has a great power to work against—namely, the experience and the sentiment of mankind almost from the earliest period of history. The most enlightened, the most civilized, and the most refined nation of antiquity—that of Greece—did not burn their dead. It is true that in Homer descriptions may be found of the burning of the dead in pre-historic times, and I doubt whether the universal proposition laid down by Wachsmuth, that the Greeks never burned their dead, can be supported. I think that that proposition is too wide —indeed, Socrates speaks of both manners of disposing of the dead. The Greeks, however, did not adopt burning as a general practice. The Greeks followed the method which we have adopted in more recent periods. They forbade burials within cities, and they insisted on extra-mural interments. Then as to the Romans. With regard to the Romans, no doubt, burning was in the time of the Empire adopted. It was not the usual practice of the Romans in the time of the Republic. I remember that Sylla was the first of his family—the first of the Cornelian Gens— who was burnt, and he caused himself to be burnt, in order that he might not be served as he had served his great rival, Marius, whom he had dug up after burial. That pretty well fixes what the practice was at that particular time. No doubt after that time burning was largely adopted by the Romans, and that for two or three centuries they burnt their dead; but there were some curious exceptions. When a man was struck by lightning he was supposed to be sanctified by the stroke; and I remember the fine phrase of Mr. Canning, referring to King George III. in the decay of his age. He spoke of him as "Scathed by Heaven's lightning, but consecrated as much as blasted by the blow." The Romans also buried in the case of infants whose teeth had not been cut. But they often used burial very frequently otherwise. The word sepulcrum applies both to burial and burning. We have all seen a sarcophagus. We have seen the memorials of Roman remains in England. They may be seen in the Museum at York and other places, and actually so perfect that the imprint of the mortuary cloth may be traced upon the covering of the dead. Therefore it is clear that burning was not the universal practice of even Imperial Rome; but that burial was used as well. Therefore, if you look to the history of mankind—and, after all, mankind had some wisdom even before we were born—if you look back 2,000 years, how small a space of that period it is during which the civilized world adopted this method of disposing of its dead. Why, it would not be two or three centuries out of 20 centuries of Christianity that the practice of burning prevailed. For 18 centuries, it may be said, indeed, to have been rejected by the opinion of civilized Europe. Did I say 18 centuries? I should have said 15 centuries, for the Roman influence prevailed for about three or four centuries. Now, it may be said in these enlightened times that there was prejudice connected with religious ideas; but that is not the cause why the present system has endured. My hon. Friend referred to the practice on the Continent of Europe. There was a time when France was not under the influence of religious prejudice. When the Goddess of Reason was installed in Paris there was no ground why the religious influence should prevail, and why cremation should not have been adopted. But it was not adopted in France. My hon. Friend referred to a Bill by M. Gambetta which might have been passed; but I gather from him that cremation at the present moment is illegal in France. But if that is so, it is not under the predominant influence of religious prejudice. No, Sir; it is not religious prejudice. It is a prejudice, if you please. I would call it a sentiment founded upon the sympathy, in my opinion, of mankind. At all events, my hon. Friend must go a great deal further before he can establish anything like a consensus of opinion in favour of the system he advocates. He has told us that there are crematoria established in various places; but he has not told us what use is made of them. That is very important. If he could show us that in those countries where they are established use is made of them by millions of people, by thousands and tens of thousands of cases, we might think that it was insular prejudice, and that there was a public sentiment in favour of its being universally employed. That would have advanced his argument. But he quoted nothing in that way worth speaking of. There is only one great authority I can find which he has actually converted, and that is the Commissioners of Sewers of the Corporation of London. Well, the Corporation of London is a body of advanced opinions. They had a Bill the other day dealing with the water supply. Now they are going to dispose of human bodies, and they are going to establish a great crematorium at Ilford. Whether they are building for themselves a great funeral pyre to dispose of the Corporation it is not for me to say; but perhaps they desire that their death should not be like that of other men, and that they should vanish in a fiery chariot. But as to this new method, I cannot accept even the authority of the Commissioners of Sewers against the general opinion of the world of the practice of collective ages. The question is, what is the character of the evils made out, and what are the methods to deal with it? Now, my hon. Friend read largely from the Reports of the Commissioners of Health; and I gathered from him that they were the Reports in The Times. He referred to Mr. Edwin Chadwick, who took a great interest in public health. This was many years ago. A great deal has been done in the reform of burial since then in regard to burials in crowded populations and matters of that kind. Instead of having them in the City of London and in the midst of crowded populations, you have burials at Woking and other cemeteries. My hon. Friend (Dr. Farquharson) is afraid that the soil of England will be exhausted by burial grounds. We have not come to that yet. They are hardly so extensive as deer forests at the present time, and therefore I do not think that is an argument. I once saw a remarkable statement that the whole population of the globe could stand on the Isle of Wight; giving each man a yard square to stand on. Well, if you lay him down a yard square would equally accommodate him; and if you come to dispose of the population, of the globe in that way, I do not think territorial earth hunger is an argument which will conclude this question. I look on this matter, as I said before, as one of the unenlightened. I know that to-morrow, for the remarks I have made, I shall be denounced as a Philistine, and that the philosophers will do me to death. I always sympathized a good deal with the Philistines, and I always thought that the strong man was very hard upon them, and I console myself with the reflection of the instrument he employed for their destruction. Therefore, if I am attacked by the philosophers, I feel that after all we are the majority of the world, and that though the philosophers do come down upon us very harshly, still there are always some of us who survive. But, to speak seriously, my hon. Friend is kind enough to make the pivot of his cremation turn on the Home Secretary. I always maintained that the Home Secretary has got a good deal too much to do, and I am painfully conscious that he has a great deal more to do than he can properly do, or properly does, and the creation of all these new duties is in itself an evil. How am I to undertake the duties that are here laid down? I am to determine how many, and where the crematoria are to be placed. I am afraid that my decisions on the subject would not be satisfactory to my hon. Friend. Then I am to determine the regulations under which people are to be turned into those silver - frosted fragments, as my hon. Friend (Dr. Farquharson) called it, and put in glass bottles. These things are imposing on the Executive duties that I feel entirely unequal to. I see before me my Predecessor (Sir R. Assheton Cross), and my probable Successor. If he is willing to state that he is prepared to accept those duties my hon. Friend will have received valuable support; but, at the present time, it seems to me that we should be doing a thing which would be extremely unwise and extremely imprudent if we were to endeavour to force on the mind of the people, when they are not prepared for it, a measure of this kind. I believe that practical politics and practical statesmanship differ in that respect, that philosophical speculation must take account of the sentiment and, if you please, the prejudice of mankind; and I do not think that the proposals which have been advanced by my hon. Friend—propositions which, I venture to say, are by no means commensurate with the Bill—are those which would be acceptable, or could be safely adopted. So far as the Bill itself is concerned, I have pointed out that it does not correspond with those propositions, and it does not make an adequate reform in the certificate of death, and consequently upon that footing could not be accepted; and that, as regards cremation, it proposes to introduce a thing which, if it were introduced, would not accomplish the objects of my hon. Friend, which could only be accomplished by a general and compulsory system of cremation; that it is not worth while for his purpose, and therefore, if not worth while for the purpose of the general good of the community, it certainly is not prudent to introduce a matter which I think would be the cause of very great dissatisfaction and very great alarm, in disturbing a system which on the whole, whatever may be its defects, is correspondent to the wishes and the necessities of the community.


The Home Secretary objected to the Bill of my hon. Friend on the ground that it did not carry out the full advocacy of the speech he made in its favour. My hon. Friend knew that it would be only possible to give a permissive Bill for cremation of those who believed it was a salutary process. His speech certainly went much further, and I trust in my remarks I shall keep within it. It is a mere simple permissive Bill, removing an illegal disability which may at present attach to cremation, and giving those securities against crime which are so necessary to prevent cases of secret poisoning. I have placed my name on the back of this Bill, not because I think that cremation is in all cases the best method of disposing of the dead, but because it is a perfectly safe and innocuous process, and as such should not be prejudiced by any legal disability. The means of burning bodies in a complete way are perfectly known, and are efficiently practised in foreign countries. The means of burying in a safe and complete way are also known, but are rarely followed in practice. So that, as a fact, cremation is a process of disposing of the dead in a way which is completely innocuous to the living; while burial, as commonly followed, is a perpetual menace to the health of the survivors in countries of large and increasing populations. The Home Secretary is a high classical authority; but my reading in history as to burying and burning is different from his. From the earliest times, burning was practised in the interior regions of Asia; and in the Western World it was followed by the Thracians, by the Celtae, the Sarmatiae, and other nations. Both processes, burning and burial, have been so extensively adopted in all ages and among all countries, that a main argument against burning consists in the fact that an effort is being made to revive a plan which has been abandoned by common consent in some Pagan and in all Christian countries. At one time burning was at least as general as burial. Indeed, in past ages it was more general than burial, with the important exceptions of Egypt, Judea, and China. Even in these countries burning of bodies was not unknown. Among the Jews, Saul and his sons were burned, and their ashes were buried under a tree. In great plagues also, as in the Vale of Tophet, the bodies were burned for sanitary reasons. At Home the burning of bodies was practised from the close of the Republic to the middle of the fourth Christian century. In Greece, at one time at least, it was so universal that the only exceptions to it were in the cases of suicide, persons struck by lightning, and mere infants. Why, then, was this general process abandoned? Both the philosophies and the religions of the Old World had great effect in supporting or opposing the two systems of burial and burning. In the old philosophies matter was supposed to be derived from earth, or air, or water, or fire; and living bodies formed from these were after death resolved into them. So the earth philosophers preferred burial, and the air and fire philosophers preferred burning. Religious beliefs acted more powerfully in the selection of funeral rites. Egypt, believing firmly in immortality, embalmed bodies to preserve them for a future state, so that the greatest punishment of the malefactor was to burn his body. So it was in the primitive belief of Christians, that the actual bodies of dead men were to be changed into glorified bodies for immortality. This belief gave a great impulse to the burial of the dead, and it was increased by burning dead and living bodies for heresy, so that burial became a sign of faith, and burning of unbelief. Amid all these changes, the main purpose of burial or burning was never lost sight of, and that was to conceal or destroy the dead body. It was touchingly expressed by Abraham, on the death of Sarah, when he asked for a piece of land "that I may bury the dead out of my sight." The very word "burial" is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word which means concealment. The dead are to disappear from the living. Socrates put the case wisely when he said that he did not care whether his body was burned or buried, provided his friends did not think that they had burned or buried Socrates. To him it was true, as our great poet expresses it— Death makes no conquest of this conqueror, For now he lives in fame, though not in life. Lucan, writing in the first century, also shows in what estimation both processes were held, when he says—"Tabesne cadavera solvat an rogus haud refert"—whether decay or fire destroys corpses matters not. This philosophy of the past has again become the philosophy of the present. Surely, there is no educated man in this 19th century who could believe that immortality is chained to the body of the dead. Not so believed the glorious martyrs who were burned at the stake, or thrown to wild beasts in the arena, or, in later times, those who were beheaded for their faith and thrown into the felon's pit. All were equally certain with old Sir Thomas Brown that "there is nothing immortal but immortality." Both religion and science have now come to the belief that the disposal of the dead is a question of sentiment and convenience. Either burial or cremation produces exactly the same end— the resolution of the body, and differs only in regard to the time in which the resolution is effected. Burial resolves the body into its simple gases and solids, according to its efficiency, in from three to 20 years. Burning produces exactly the same gases and solids in one hour. The earth in its effective state is simply a slow, burning furnace; the crematory is a rapid one. In the earth the body is slowly burned by the air within the pores of the soil. All the organic part of the body passes into gases, which escape into the air as carbonic acid, water, and ammonia. When everything is favourable to burial—when there is no intervening coffin to retard the decay, when the soil is sufficient in quantity and porosity—the decay or slow burning goes on as Nature intended, innocuously to the living, and in fulfilment of an infinitely wise purpose of the great Creator. For these ultimate gases into which the body is resolved constitute the whole aerial food of plants, and are by them constantly moulded into new forms of organic life. And when we make our burials in this simple and complete way there is no violation of any natural law; but we help to fulfil the great cycle of the world, that death and life continually alternate; for death is a source of life, and the dissolution of one generation is necessary for the life of the succeeding one. That is the ideal burial advocated in Mr. Seymour Haden's eloquent letters, "Earth to Earth;" and to it I have no exception to take or preference to give in favour of cremation. But is that the sort of burial which prevails in this country? The description of the actual condition of burial is too repulsive to give, so I will simply say that we do everything to postpone, although we cannot defeat, the beneficent laws of Nature as to the resolution of dead bodies. We inclose our dead in impermeable coffins, often in brick graves, under conditions in which natural decay is substituted by putrescence. In the case of the poor what is called a grave is only a hole in which coffin upon coffin is piled, separated only by thin layers of earth wholly insufficient for absorption. That is not a grave; it is a pit of putridity. I have beside me an official Report upon the way in which paupers are now buried in a Lancashire workhouse close to the living inmates. I will not shock the House by quoting from it. Burial, as commonly practised in this country, both among rich and poor, shows little respect to the dead, and is a continual menace to the living. It destroys the soil, it fouls the air, it contaminates the water, and is a fertile source of human disease. Are you, then, surprised that a reaction against the abuses of burial has taken place, and that scientific men have proposed to re-establish burning as one means of remedying these abominable evils? The body is subject to the immutable law of resolution by decay, as the great provision of the Creator to nourish plants required as food by new generations. You may retard the operation of the law by bad systems of burial, or by embalments; but in the end it governs you. The bodies of the old Pharaohs have existed for thousands of years; but they are now gradually dissipating in our museums by decay. In this case the process of decay is inoffensive; but what it is in even the best of our churchyards I do not venture to describe. Cremation yields to this law instant obedience. The body yields in the furnace the very same gases which it yields from the soil. The time only differs. In the one case an hour is sufficient; in the other case 20 years may not suffice. The ultimate processes are not merely similar—they are absolutely identical. Both fulfil the end—"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust"— but in cremation that is a reality; in burial only a postponed hope, which the survivor may never live to see realized. Why, then, should we hesitate to give legal facilities to those who desire to treat their dead in this way? The burned bodies of martyrs are as sacred in the history of Christianity as those which are buried in the catacombs of Rome. Of the two modes of disposing of the dead let the living choose their own plan, on the condition that both are conducted with decorum, and with full regard to the known wishes of the deceased and to the feelings of the survivors. Let religion still hallow the event by the beautiful services which all Christian countries adopt on that solemn occasion. I admit that, until the religious feelings of the country look upon cremation with favour, it is not likely to be extensively practised. But if you reject this Bill, you are bound to reform your Laws of Burial, and to bring its practice into some unison with existing knowledge. At present it is a scandal to the most elementary laws of public health. It is desirable to look upon the graves of those we have loved with the tenderest associations of the past, and with the brightest hopes of the future. But burial, as now practised, is to every man of science an evil to the living and a want of honour to the dead. If you deny to those who desire cremation the right to use it, at least meet this demand by reforming your modes of burial; at all events, bring them into consonance with Nature's laws, which are much wiser than our statutes. Burial and burning have the same end, to resolve dead bodies into the aerial food of plants—the one slowly, the other quickly. Over a dead body man has no further power, for chemical and physical forces then reign supreme. It seems unreasonable to refuse to those who wish these changes to be quickly effected, through burning, the right to do so. You cannot help the same end arriving at last. The great and abounding air into which passes all the foulness of the living and all the decay of the dead will continue to be, as it is now, the ultimate grave of organic death and the cradle of organic life. Old Bishop Hall was very near this truth when he said—"Death borders upon our birth, and our cradle stands in the grave." Why should you not allow those who know this truth to produce the final and inevitable result by a process of rapid burning, instead of by a prolonged process of decay in the soil? Only one real argument has been used against the Bill, and that is that burning of a body might destroy the evidences of crime. The Bill takes special precautions that crimes of violence could not escape detection. But secret poisoning might in some cases remain undiscovered, although by this Bill, with its carefully framed methods of medical examination, it is far less likely to remain undetected than on the present system. Secret poisoning is effected either by mineral or organic poisons. All the mineral poisons, except arsenic, and perhaps mercury, would remain in the ashes of the burning, and these could be retained. As to organic poisons, they would be destroyed by burning, as they are now destroyed in the grave, by putrescence; so as regards these both burial and burning are equally at fault. The common form of arsenical poisoning would, however, be detected after burial, and probably not at all after burning. This is an admitted objection to it. Although the medical certificate required by the Bill would render such occasions rare, they might occur, as they do now, not infrequently, in ordinary burial. But to what extent? I never heard it urged that cremation of our Indian subjects is any hindrance to the administration of justice in our Indian Empire. But, admitting the evil to some extent, to me it appears to be as nothing compared to the good which would follow. I do not, indeed, believe that burning will become at all universal. But if it be brought into competition with burial, that as a system must be greatly improved, and be brought under laws which will render it compatible with decency and with public health. So that the good which would follow by the introduction of a competing system for the disposal of the dead would amply compensate the living for the rare, though possible, chance that an isolated crime might remain undetected.


said, he had listened with attention and pleasure to the able speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Edinburgh (Sir Lyon Playfair). He was himself quite indifferent to the particular mode adopted for disposing of human remains, whether by burial or by cremation; but bodies must be got rid of somehow. They were apt to be disagreeable to the living; the present practice of interment was attended with drawbacks; and, therefore, we were bound to consider fairly the proposed alternative. He had lived for a long time among Hindoos, with whom cremation was habitual. In and about Calcutta there were, perhaps, 500,000 Hindoos, who, at one time, used to throw their dead into the Hooghly. That was prohibited, and then, burial being unknown among them, cremation was adopted, under a completely European administration, without any remonstrance on the part of either Christians or Mahomedans. Considering how great was the population, it was surprising how simply and easily it was done in an inclosure which was almost in the centre of Calcutta. At first, in anticipation of offence to the living, science was called in aid, and a furnace and a high chimney erected for the purpose of carrying off the fumes to Heaven; but somehow the scientific process did not commend itself to the Hindoos, and they were allowed to return to the historic funeral pyre. He was bound to say, from personal observation, that by this plan the dead were disposed of rapidly and without offence, and no complaint was made on the part of the outside public. He could not concur in the assertion that no inconvenience was felt in prosecuting inquiry in cases of supposed poisoning; on the contrary, there had been inconvenience from too rapid cremation, just as there would be from throwing bodies into the Ganges, in a country where it was necessary to dispose of bodies more quickly than in this country. We did not know how far poisoning was common in this country; still less did we know how far it might be common in India; and sometimes he had had reason to suspect that it prevailed more than we supposed. It was, therefore, possible that the rapid disposal of bodies might have some effect in promoting poisoning. There was a law in India under which childless widows inherited the property of their husbands; and it had often been remarked by administrators that, according to statistics, there "was an extraordinary number of childless Hindoo widows, and this led to the suspicion that a good many of the husbands had been made away with. In this country it was possible to take greater precautions than were possible in India, because it was not necessary to dispose of the dead so rapidly. The precautions provided by the Bill would probably be sufficient. The only other objection he had—namely, the waste of good matter for manurial purposes—had been disposed of by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Edinburgh; and, as the final result was the same by both processes, he was prepared to vote for the second reading of the Bill.


said, that as we were not all philosophers nor all Hindoos, we could not argue this matter as if we were either the one or the other. He shared the feeling of the Home Secretary as to the danger that would ensue from cremation so far as the detection of crime was concerned. We must consider how far the adoption of cremation would effect the probability of crimes being committed without their being detected. It was curious that even in India, those who buried their dead would not have the philosophic method of cremation, but would revert to the somewhat crude and unphilosophical method of burning on the funeral pile; and the House had just heard, on the high authority of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir George Campbell), that apprehensions were entertained as to the rate at which poisoning prevailed among the Hindoos. As a matter of fact, even organic poisons had been known to remain a long time in the body; they had been found in bodies that had been exhumed, and the result had been the conviction of poisoners. On the other hand, it was certain that even arsenic would be largely dissipated by the process of burning. The adoption of the process of burning would, therefore, produce in the minds of the people a feeling that, in spite of medical certificates, they would be exposed to the risks of poisoning, because their bodies would be disposed of so quickly, and with them would disappear the evidence of crime. The argument that opposition to the Bill implied interference with the law of Nature which converted our bodies into the food of plants could scarcely be treated as one affecting practical politics. There might have been a menace to the living in the conditions of burial some years ago; but improved regulations had been adopted, and now no practical danger could ensue if the Burial Laws were properly carried out. It was said that we should still have to improve our Burial Laws unless we adopted cremation. If so, we should still have to improve them, for the Bill was only permissive, and under it cremation would not become general for a long time. One of the greatest arguments against the Bill was that it was against the public sentiment. It was immaterial what might have been done among the Greeks and the Romans; but, if cremation had been introduced by either, by the common consent of Europe the practice had ceased. When it was proposed to begin it at Wokingham seven or eight years ago, very strong representations were made to him against it; and if the attempt had been made it would have led to disturbance in the country. He did not think it safe to allow the experiment to go on; his endeavours to stop it had been followed up by those of his Successor, who deserved the thanks of the country for the attitude he had taken. The attempt to prove what the results of the decomposition of the human body were and must be, whatever happened, would have been a good lecture at the Royal Institution; but practical politics were not governed by philosophy. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir Lyon Play-fair) had said that the only difference between burial and cremation was that one system took years, and the other a few hours. Even if he could prove that, yet cremation was against the opinion of the majority. They must consider, not whether there were a few people who wanted it, but that the mass of the people were against it. Where was the demand for it? A number of philosophers, who thought it was the perfection of science, would be glad to see it carried out; but they did not represent the common feeling of the country. It was said that the sentiment of the country had arisen from the belief that the actual body would rise again hereafter, and that impression might still prevail in spite of all philosophy. Nothing but imperative necessity should induce Parliament to do anything which would shock the feelings of the masses of the people on the subject of the burial of the dead. This should not be done unless it was absolutely necessary for the health of the living. No such statement had been made; and the fact that the sentiment of the people was against it was evident. ["Where?"] Where? everywhere. He had the best means of knowing what happened several years ago when he was in Office, and he believed his Successor had found there was no change in the feelings of the people. He agreed with everything the Home Secretary had said; and, therefore, he should heartily vote against the second reading.


said, they had had a very extraordinary exhibition that day. They had seen a Secretary of State and an ex-Secretary of State running amuck against the laws of Nature, the laws of science, and the laws of the country. As he understood it, it was pretty well admitted by those who acknowledged the decision of the Judges that cremation was legal. It had been stated so from the Bench; but the Home Secretary had congratulated his Predecessor upon having resisted. And when his Predecessor got up, he boasted that he, in defiance of the law, had interfered to prevent cremation. Well, that was a very astonishing state of things in a country which, up to the present time, he had hoped was a law-abiding country. As for the laws of Nature, they were jeered out of the House. It was perfectly monstrous, the Home Secretary said, for anyone to allude to such things in Parliament. The late Home Secretary had said that they were not within the scope of practical politics. Well, they were anxious to bring them within the scope of practical politics, and that was the reason that excellent Bill was brought in. The Home Secretary had told them that he and others would feel afraid that they might be poisoned if other people were burned. He had said—"My relations would immediately poison me. One cousin would poison me, another cousin would burn me, and neither cousin would hang for it." Well, he thought that was within the range of practical politics. His hon. Friend (Dr. Cameron) had pointed out that there were 20,000 persons who died every year, and were buried without any species of medical certificate. He did not suppose that all those persons were poisoned; but they might have been, so far as the law was concerned, just as well as if they had been cremated. [An hon. MEMBER: They could be dug up.] No; they could not be dug up. Nobody did. When once they had got a relative underground they kept him there. He remembered once the Home Secretary stating in that House that he was an old Whig. Now, it seemed to him that an old Whig was almost worse than the oldest Conservative, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman literally carried his Conservatism beyond the grave. What was his argument? He had talked about the Greeks and the Romans; but, living in the full light of the 19th century, what had the Greeks and the Romans to do with it? What struck him was the ignorance displayed by the Home Secretary. Had the right hon. and learned Gentleman never read of Thucydides? Speaking of the plague in Athens, Thucydides said that it was so common then to burn the corpses, and the people were in such a state of excitement, that they took some of their friends before they were dead to act as faggots for those who were dead. The right hon. and learned Gentleman told the House that the Romans did not burn their dead in the days of the Republic, and he argued that Republics were so much better than Empires that we ought not to do so now. That was a very doubtful question. He thought the right hon. and learned Gentleman would find that the Etruscans did burn their dead.


The Etruscans were not Romans.


The right hon. and learned Gentleman was continually making discoveries. He never said they were. But the Etruscans preceded the Romans, and the Romans acquired a very large portion of their civilization from the Etruscans. If, therefore, it were admitted that the Etruscans were in the habit of burning their dead, they might assume that the Romans also burnt their dead. But what on earth did the matter signify? It did not signify one atom. Then the Home Secretary said—" Look at Christianity! when Christianity came they ceased to burn the dead." But did the right hon. and learned Gentleman remember that he was alluding to ages when Europe was in a state of barbarism; and that it was at that time that they ceased to burn their dead and began to bury them? He would point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, so far as many of the sects of the Church were concerned, they had certainly been in favour of burning, because they burnt on both sides heretics, even before they were dead. Then the right hon. and learned Gentleman told them that it was a matter of sentiment —no; not a matter of sentiment, but of feeling. He did not know who had that feeling. So far as he was concerned, it was a matter of absolute indifference to him whether he was buried, or burnt, or anatomized—or anathematized. It was a matter of absolute indifference to him what became of his relatives. He did not see that they would gain anything by being burnt or by being buried. It was a question for the living, not for the dead. Why they objected to burial and why they wished to inaugurate cremation was, that those who remained on this Globe would benefit by cremation. They might talk about cemeteries, but the corpses did gradually get into the soil— they permeated the water and they did a vast amount of injury. The Home Secretary and the late Home Secretary seemed to be under the impression that the Bill obliged everybody to be burnt. It did nothing of the sort. They did not in any sort or way wish to interfere with the late Home Secretary being buried if he wished it. They were not going to insist on burning him. That was a matter for himself and his friends. What they simply asked was that when a person desired to be cremated, not that the law should permit him, for the law did that already, but that the cremation should take place under certain regulations. All the arguments against the Bill had been against the system of cremation. He hoped the House would assent to the Bill. It allowed the matter to be optional. It was what he might almost call a local option after death. The Bill was the consequence of a considerable number of persons desiring that cremation should take place under fair and legitimate rules and regulations which would render abuse of the system impossible.


, referring to the death of a lady which occurred 10 years ago in the parish in which he resided, expressed the opinion that the fearful circumstances which were brought to light after the body was exhumed would not have been revealed if cremation had taken place. He ventured to say that this was a question for the living rather than for the dead; and he very much doubted whether the safeguards proposed in the Bill were adequate. He hoped the House would pause before hastily passing the second reading.


said, that when the practice of cremation had become extensive among the Romans poisoning increased very much. A lady named Locusta had had considerable opportunities for exercising her art, and detection became very difficult. There were but few mineral poisons whose traces would remain after cremation; and if local authorities established on a large scale a crematorium, where the bodies of the poor would be consumed, it was likely that poisoning by arsenic would be greatly encouraged. He differed from hon. Gentlemen who thought that we might trust to popular sentiment. Changes in that respect occurred very rapidly. He did not think that either the consistency or persistency of popular sentiment on the subject could be trusted; and it would be almost impossible to provide safeguards against an abuse which existed in an imperfect form under our present system. He agreed with his right hon. and learned Friend as to the scientific aspect of the subject; but when it came to be a question of police the matter would be found to be very difficult. He believed there was very much less secret poisoning now than in former times; but we could not afford to relax any of our existing precautions.


said, he regretted very much that the Bill had been brought forward. Of the four Scotch Members who had supported it three were of scientific eminence; and their opinions on vaccination and vivisection had hitherto been received with a respect which in future were less likely to be extended to them. The debate, however, showed that the Home Secretary, when he spoke the sentiments of his own heart, was a thorough Tory, for a more admirable, sound Tory speech than that of the right hon. and learned Gentleman he had never heard in the House. The earliest instance of a contract on record was when the Patriarch Abraham paid a price in silver for a burial-place in which to lay his dead. The natural sentiment with regard to a burial-place where our bodies must remain until the Resurrection must be stronger than with regard to an urn containing a handful of ashes.


said, it seemed to him that those hon. Gentlemen who promoted the measure had no very clear idea in their own minds as to how it was to be worked. Accordingly, they adopted a practice that was not uncommon, and threw the responsibility of making regulations on the Home Secretary. An excellent sentiment was growing up in favour of so disposing of the dead as to allow Nature to complete her work naturally; and if legislation were proposed with the object of discouraging the use of lead coffins and brick graves he should give it his support. Such an amendment of the Burial Laws would completely meet the main argument of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Edinburgh (Sir Lyon Playfair). There was, however, no reasonable chance of a general approval of the practice of cremation. Nearly every civilized race felt horror at the thought of submitting the bodies of their relatives to cremation. There was evidence in Home and elsewhere to show that, from the earliest times, Christians were opposed to the practice of burning the dead.


said, it was admitted by everyone that cremation could take place with perfect ease. The Bill did not propose to legalize cremation, for it was legal already. The measure would only regulate the practice, and place it under proper restrictions. He regretted that the Home Secretary should have treated the subject in a spirit of badinage. What, he asked, was the relevancy of references to the Greeks and Romans? Those nations knew nothing of the germ theory of disease, whereas we knew that our rivers and springs were being poisoned by the germs emanating from dead bodies. Replying to the argument that cremation might frustrate the detection of poisoners, he said that a Committee of the French Chamber of Deputies had reported that experiments conducted by chemists of eminence showed that arsenic and other poisons could be found in the ashes of poisoned animals after cremation. He should support the Motion for the second reading. [Cries of "Divide!"]


said, he was not surprised that the House should be anxious to go to a Division after the rollicking Scotch morning which they had had. He wished, however, to be allowed to point out that the provisions of the Bill did not afford absolute security against the disposal by cremation of the body of a poisoned man. A certificate would be necessary before cremation could be carried out, signed by the medical attendant of the deceased in his last illness. Suppose a case in which the medical man himself should be the culprit; there would be nothing to prevent him from signing the certificate for the disposal by burning of the corpse of his victim. In his opinion, the Bill was simply a measure designed to put 5s. into the pockets of the Medical Profession every time a person died. Much had been said about the interest which the poor felt in the question of cremation. He knew well that many poor people in ill-health preferred to starve in their own houses rather than, go into the workhouse, so great was their fear of a pauper grave; but the horror with which they looked forward to a pauper's burial would be greatly increased if they were told that they would be burnt. The Bill represented the crude effort of some scientific men to foist their views upon the House; and he trusted that those views would not be adopted.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 79; Noes 149: Majority 70.—(Div. List, No. 79.)