Intended for healthcare professionals


Crisis in cremation

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 22 August 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:485

Positive action by the Home Office is urgently needed

  1. Stuart Horner (, Professor in medical ethics.
  1. Centre for Professional Ethics, University of Central Lancashire, Preston PR1 2HE

    Disposal of bodies by cremation in the United Kingdom gathered pace in the last 25 years of the last century, following the establishment of the Cremation Society in 1874. It is now the commonest form of disposal, accounting for 73% of disposals in 1996. The legislative framework for cremation was established in 1902: its centenary seems likely to be marked by a system in crisis, on the verge of collapse.

    The legislation requires the signature of a medical referee before a cremation can take place. A recent survey of medical referees conducted by the BMA showed that less than 20% are aged under 50. Over half are over 60 and more than a third over 65. No arrangements seem to have been made for replacing this elderly group of doctors. Individual medical referees reported themselves trapped in a system from which there was no escape—required to attend virtually every day, for a fee which does not even pay their travelling costs. They are finding it impossible to recruit …

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