Gateway Object: Ashes Urn (Cremation)

Image showing Olympia urn and a grave vase
Black and white illustration of a coffin entering furnace. four figures with their back to us in foreground.

This plastic ashes urn was the cheapest item available at Newman Brothers. It was most likely used by funeral directors for people who could not afford a funeral. Today a burial arranged and paid for by the government is called a Public Health Funeral. A person can receive such a burial if the estate funds can’t cover funeral costs and/or there are no relatives or friends to arrange a funeral.

A Public Health Funeral is not usually a burial, as these are more expensive. It is usually a cremation, often with a short service, but without extras such as flowers, cars or notices in the local newspaper.


In the post-war years new land was being used to build housing rather than cemeteries and cremation grew in popularity. The number of coffin furniture manufacturers in Birmingham shrank. From twelve 1944 to three in 1967. No new companies entered the market after 1949.

By the 1970s, the market for Newman Brothers’ products continued to shrink, they failed to modernise as cremation increased in popularity. Newman Brothers relied mainly on their reputation and existing customers. By this point, they had become a ‘one-stop shop’ selling most things a funeral director required, including ashes caskets.

In regards to cremation, funerary expert and historian, Brian Parsons says

“The first regulations issued by crematoria can be traced to 1901 with the opening of Hull Crematorium where their instructions stated, ‘There is no smoke and little visible flame before the body is introduced, and if the coffin be made according to instructions (that is, preferably of dry oak boards, half an inch in thickness, without paint or varnish, and with no metal fixings of any kind, save under certain conditions, a thin zinc lining), there is practically no smoke during cremation.”

In 1909 formal guidelines were published by the London Cremation Company, owners of the famous Golders Green crematoria in London, and Britain’s oldest crematorium in Woking. Even at this stage in Great Britain there were only 855 cremations during 1909 among the 13 crematoria in operation.

What could not be consumed by the flame was recovered from the cremation chamber and either buried in the crematorium/cemetery grounds or sold to a scrap dealer. Today, many UK crematoria subscribe to the ICCM scheme where metals recovered from crematoria are collected by an organisation and sent for recycling; profits from this are given to nominated charities.

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