Today in Australia, the most common ways we deal with disposing with the remains of our dearly departed are interment (burial) and cremation. But step back 100 years, and cremation was rarely practiced at all. Although allowed under law in NSW – the 1896 Public Health Act – there was no purpose-built crematorium until 1925.

The campaign to introduce cremation to NSW was led by John Mildred Creed, who moved to Sydney in the 1860s. An English-born medical doctor and a member of the Legislative Council from 1885 until his death in 1930, he was a tireless social reformer who had a number of bees in his bonnet. Apart from cremation, he supported the registration of doctors and campaigned for the construction of a purpose-built institution for the care and cure of inebriates on Peat Island.

Creed was elected to the Legislative Council in 1885, and introduced the first cremation bill the following year. Nicknamed the ‘father of cremation’, he promoted ‘urn burials’ in preference to interment on public health grounds. By the late 19th century, most of Sydney’s burial grounds in the urban areas were overcrowded and insanitary. There were reports in the local press that they enabled the spread of infectious diseases.

But Creed’s proposed legislation met with stiff opposition from the outset – both in the parliament and in the broader society. Although it was acknowledged that Sydney’s cemeteries were poorly managed, sensibilities towards death and dying were very different to what they are today. In the 19th century, people had a strong emotional connection to burial places and its associated headstones, which was considered as sacred or hallowed ground. As memorials to the dead, they offered the mourning family and friends a place of reflection and remembrance.

Landscaped grounds of the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, mid 1930s (Harold Cazneaux, State Library of NSW - PXD 806 / 40-132)

Creed’s bill was overturned, but despite this, he continued with his campaign to introduce cremation on public health grounds. But his supporters often had other reasons for promoting the introduction of cremation. For some there were pragmatic concerns – cemeteries took up valuable real estate which got in the way of urban development. Others supported cremation on religious or philosophical grounds, such as the Unitarians or the Theosophists.

The campaign to introduce cremation was revived just before the First World War, in part due to the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Sydney in 1900. In 1908, the Cremation Society of NSW was formed, and began a pamphleteering campaign that promoted cremation as modern and progressive. Although the outbreak of the war in 1914 put an end to the nascent movement, momentum increased following the war. The 20th century marked the ‘end of the elaborate Victorian funeral and mourning ritual’. This was mainly due to the vast losses sustained during the war and in the Influenza pandemic of 1919, and the associated simplicity and restraint in both funeral practice and cemetery design. Cremation was recast as modern, with fire considered cleansing rather than barbaric.

In 1918, the State Government agreed to the demands of the Cremation Society of NSW to hand over 4 acres of land within the Rookwood Necropolis, although this did meet with some opposition from locals, due to its visible location on a hill and fears about smoke from the chimney.

Northern Suburbs Crematorium, mid 1930s (Harold Cazneaux, State Library of NSW - PXD 806 / 40-132)

Most of the people who had been associated with the Cremation movement were prominent social figures in Sydney. The NSW Crematorium Company was formed in 1922 by key members from the Society, with the objective of overseeing the construction of a crematorium in Sydney. In 1923, the Cremation Society of Australia was formed, with a branch in Sydney. Creed, now in his 80s, remained at the helm.

Frank l’Anson Bloomfield was appointed as architect for the Company. In 1924, he travelled overseas to England, Europe and America to study the latest in crematoria design. The following year, he prepared his design for the crematorium at Rookwood.

The building destined for Rookwood was to have ‘stateliness and beauty’. But it was also practical, as it allowed for extensions in anticipation of the growing popularity of cremation practice.

Its design was intended to be modern and secular, based on Northern Italian domestic-scale architecture – far removed from the Gothic excesses of the late 19th century. To this end, there was no overt religious symbolism, as it was intended the services would welcome all denominations. The first cremation took place on 28 May 1925, and the building was completed in July 1926. There were 138 cremations in this year, and by 1930, there were up to 500 cremations.

In 1933, Bloomfield’s second crematorium at North Ryde, the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, was built. It was followed by a third crematorium for Sydney at Woranora in 1934. The popularity of cremation increased over the 20th century, such that today, around half of us will have an ‘urn burial’.