The First Jewish Cremation in Britain – 1888

September 28, 2009
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We have many entries on the CemeteryScribes database for individuals who were famous for their charity and good deeds , their professional and financial achievements, or their contributions to the Arts and Sciences, but this is the story of a person who was famed, not for his life, but for his burial.

Camillo Roth, a Viennese member of the London Stock Exchange, was born in 1846. He took British nationality in either 1868 or 1872; there are two entries for the same name on the National Archives website. Despite being a British Subject,  we have found no evidence of a permanent domicile. In the 1871 Census he was lodging, alone, at a small hotel in Conduit Street and, thereafter, he seems to have taken up residence at Hatchetts Hotel in Piccadilly. His collection of paintings included works such as  ‘Charlotte and Sarah Hardy, the Daughters of Colonel Thomas Carteret Hardy’ by Thomas Lawrence 1801, now to be found at The Cleveland Museum of Art.  But whether these works of art adorned the walls of his rooms in Hatchetts Hotel, to be enjoyed on a daily basis, or whether they were stored unceremoniously in some dusty Bond Street Gallery cellar, remains a mystery. Like much else about this rather elusive man.

Camillo died at Hatchetts Hotel on 9th April 1888. We have found no mention of any family, either in London or on the Continent, so we may assume that it was his considered, personal and, for the times, highly contentious, choice to be cremated.

The cremation, which took place in Woking, Surrey was reported in the Jewish Chronicle in such detail as to make unpleasant reading; the reporter evidently torn between the twin emotions of disbelief and wonderment.  The Crematorium at Woking had been built less than ten years earlier, so the practice was not widely known, but it was probably that this was the first ever cremation of a Jewish person in Britain that led to such morbid interest.  Surprisingly, The Jewish Chronicle adopts a very moderate and enlightened tone on the general subject of Cremation, suggesting it would not be contrary to Jewish Law.  And the ‘Daily News’, in its account of the cremation of Mr. Roth, reaches a similar conclusion, citing the fact that Mr. Lazarus of the West London Synagogue was present and Professor Marks conducted a service, as proof of its acceptability.

We can only wonder at the discussions that may have taken place prior to the agreement for the subsequent burial of the ashes at Balls Pond Jewish Cemetery, the first discussion of its type in the UK:  would cremation be contrary to Jewish Law; remains artificially disintegrated rather than naturally returning to dust, versus the fact that these remains, or ashes, would be returned to earth as required by the Law.

The Jewish Chronicle reports that the Executive were guided by the Ministers regarding the interment when granting the application. The length of time between Mr. Roth’s death on the 9th Oct,  and the burial of his ashes some 5 days later, suggests the Ministers did not rush into a decision.

Mr. Camillo Roth was buried at Balls Pond. His tombstone holds no clues as to the turmoil that his choice of burial must have caused amongst the community, nor the notoriety that followed it. There is no mention in the inscription and any visitor passing by it would never know.

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