Cremation has been practiced around the world for more than 20,000 years. For thousands of years, cremation was performed through the burning of bodies in open-air wood fires, often known as pyres. In ancient times, fire was regarded as a purifying agent that would ward off evil spirits, and cremation was connected to the idea of sacrifice of fire.
Throughout history, death rituals emphasizing one method of body disposal – such as burial, cremation, or exposure – have seen varying degrees of preference. Different cultural and religious groups have held their own preferences and prohibitions concerning death rituals. For example, the ancient Egyptians prohibited cremation, while the Babylonians preferred to embalm their dead. Early Persians practiced cremation, though it later was replaced with other methods. Early Greeks buried their dead, though cremation appeared there around the 12th century B.C. For thousands of years, both cremation and ground burial served as dominant burial practices in different locations around the world.
The first usage of cremation – or intentionally turning bodies into ashes – is unknown, although archaeologists believe that the idea existed more than 20,000 years ago. The earliest known cremated body was found at Mungo Lake, Australia, and is known as the Mungo Lady. Archaeologists have found evidence for cremation in China as early as 8000 B.C. Other isolated cases of cremation have been found, showing that the practice was widespread even thousands of years ago.
The history of cremation is believed to have begun in earnest in the Stone Age, around 3000 B.C., in both Europe and the Near East. Archaeological evidence for cremation during this time period has been found across the Middle East and in Europe. Cremation has been practiced in India since at least 1900 B.C. It is widely believed that cremation spread across northern Europe during this time, with isolated cases of cremation being performed throughout the late Stone Age.
In Europe, there is strong evidence of the widespread use of cremation dating back to the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. The custom became the dominant method for disposing of bodies during the Bronze Age. During this era, cremation also spread further geographically, becoming more common in the British Isles and in what is now Portugal and Spain. Cemeteries specifically intended for the burial of cremated remains developed in northern Italy, Hungary, Ireland, and elsewhere across Europe.
While other methods – particularly the burial of intact bodies – became more common during the Iron Age (1200 B.C. to 400 A.D.), cremation persisted. Cremation existed along with ground burials in both ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Around 1200 to 1000 B.C., cremation became an integral aspect of the elaborate Grecian burial custom. The earliest known written description of cremation ritual is found in the Greek poet Homer’s account of Patroclus’ cremation and burial. In Homer’s time – around 800 B.C. – cremation was encouraged for the expedient burial of slain warriors, and was also the preferred method of disposition in other situations.
By the time of the Roman Empire – which lasted from 27 B.C. To 395 A.D. – cremation again became widely practiced. Ancient Romans considered ground burial to be the more archaic option. Meanwhile, cremation was usually associated with high social status or military honor. As a result, most honored citizens, particularly those in the upper classes, were cremated rather than buried. Cremation became so prevalent that in the mid 5th century, a Roman decree was issued to stop the cremation of bodies within the borders of the city.
It is believed that the idea of urns to hold the ashes of the dead was first introduced in ancient Greece or Rome. These urns were typically made of clay or bronze. In Greece, they were buried in the ground of an an “urn cemetery.” On the other hand, bodies cremated in the Roman empire were stored in elaborate urns in columbariums (special buildings created to house ashes). Today, both of these options are available for the final disposition of cremated remains.
While the practice of cremation was prevalent among the Romans, this was not the case with other cultures existing during the same time period. Cremation was rare among early Christians, who considered the burning of bodies to be a pagan rite. It was also uncommon in the Jewish culture, where entombment was the preferred method of disposition.
Although cremation was widely practiced thousands of years ago, the rise of Christianity caused cremation to practically disappear from Europe by the end of the fifth century A.D. As a result of the Christianization of Europe, earth burial almost completely replaced the cremation of bodies. During the Middle Ages, cremation was forbidden by law throughout parts of Europe, though it was still frequently performed in instances of war, famine, or the outbreak of disease, which necessitated faster disposal of bodies than was possible with ground burial. For nearly 1,500 years, burial remained the dominant mode of disposition throughout Europe and in much of the rest of the world.
In recent centuries, cremation has again become a popular means of disposition following death. Over the past two centuries, several factors have led cremation to become increasingly common. During the French Revolution, some revolutionaries and anarchists promoted cremation as a way to reduce the role of the church in end-of-life practices. Into the present day, this idea continues to lead many people towards cremation. In the late nineteenth century, cremation was viewed as a safety and public health measure, as it was believed to be more sanitary than the burying of bodies. Cremation also came into favor during this period because many cemeteries, both in Europe and in the United States, were becoming overcrowded. As a practical measure, cremation allowed more remains to be buried within the grounds of the cemetery.
The modern cremation movement is said to have officially begun in 1873, when a newly developed cremation chamber was put on display at the Vienna Exposition. The next year, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, founded the Cremation Society of England. The first modern crematories were built in both Europe and the United States during the 1870s; the first American crematory was built by Julius LeMoyne in Washington, Pennsylvania. In the early twentieth century, cremation became an increasingly popular option in most Western countries. By 1900, there were 20 crematories in operation across the country. By the time the Cremation Association of America was founded in 1913, 52 crematories had opened across the U.S.
Still, religious views on cremation prevented cremation from becoming the dominant method of disposition. Although many Christian cultures have historically discouraged cremation, it is now accepted by many denominations. In 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban on cremation, and by 1966 Catholic priests were allowed to officiate at cremation ceremonies. Today, many Catholics choose cremation.
Cremation is now practiced, to varying degrees, in more than 30 countries worldwide. In most cases, it is performed in an indoor crematorium built for this purpose. In a few countries around the globe, including India and Nepal, open-air cremation remains the more common method.
The modern cremation process occurs in a crematory furnace capable of generating temperatures between 1600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, cremation furnaces are generally fueled by propane or natural gas; coal was in use until the early 1960s. Modern crematory furnaces are designed to cremate only one body at a time, though exceptions may be made in certain circumstances, such as for a mother who died during childbirth and her still-born baby.
In the United States as well as many other countries, a body must be placed in a wooden casket, a cardboard box, or another container prior to cremation. During cremation, most of the body tissues are vaporized and oxidized by the intense heat of the furnace. Depending on the furnace, this process may be as fast as one hour per 100 pounds of body weight. The remains left behind are primarily bone. Once the cremation process is complete, they may be pulverized further, resulting in a find sand-like texture and color. The cremation process results in approximately 4 pounds of remains for adult women and 6 pounds for adult men. These ashes are then placed in a container such as a box or urn.
Cremation is not an alternative to a funeral, but rather an alternative to burial in a casket. Cremated remains may be buried, may be spread at sea or over land, or interred in a memorial site or cemetery, among other disposal methods. The disposition of cremated remains depends on the personal wishes of the deceased, as well as their religious and cultural beliefs.
Many people opt for cremation because of their religious views. For others, cremation is seen as a way to simplify the funeral process. Still others find cremation to be preferable to the thought of their body intact, underground in a casket, waiting for nature to take its course. Whatever the reason, cremation has become increasingly popular around the world.