Cremation continues to grow in popularity, but is still misunderstood by some people. As more people seek to dispel the myths and embrace cremation as a viable, safe and effective way to say goodbye to your loved one, it makes sense to revisit the history of cremation.
The history of cremation
The first evidence of cremation in the archaeological record dates to 20,000 B.C. in Mungo Lake, Australia. In the Middle East and Europe, there is evidence of cremation as early as the Neolithic period (9500 B.C).
Cremation in China dates back to 8000 B.C.. Early Persians practiced cremation, which was later prohibited in the Zoroastrian period (600 B.C). In Zoroastrian scripture, a body is a host for decay and fire was considered sacred. The Phoenicians practiced cremation beginning in 1100 B.C., burying the ashes in a trench with the urn on one side and household furnishings on the other.
Greeks practiced cremation from 3000 B.C. until 1200 B.C., when new Christian burial practices emerged. Romans also practiced cremation, typically associated with military honors, upper class citizens and imperial family members, but by 400 A.D., burials were more common.
Indian religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, prescribe open-air cremations as the body is seen as carrying the soul. This began in 1900 B.C., based on the edict belief that the god of fire receives sacrificial offerings on behalf of all the gods.
Evidence of European cremation practices date to 3000 B.C. (the Stone Age), becoming more common in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by pottery urns found in Western Russia. Early German people also practiced cremation, but this died out as their Anglo-Saxon descendants converted to Christianity.
During the Middle Ages, cremation was forbidden by law and in some cases, punishable by death. Frequently, it was used punitively by governing bodies, particularly burning people at the stake. However, during the plague, mass cremations were carried out for fear of contamination to living people.
Christianity conquers cremation
The idea that the body is sacred and made in God’s image permeated Europe, reaching far and wide. Additionally, the belief in resurrection with the second coming of Christ also posed a problem with cremation: If your body is not fully ready to be returned to life, you may not be able to partake in Judgment day.
While the spread of Christianity certainly limited cremations, it did not ] eradicate them completely. In fact, some groups, such as the Freemasons and various other anarchic cohorts, used cremation to protest the stringent rules and rituals put in place by the Catholic Church. How do you think the Catholic Church responded? By being even more strongly opposed to burning human remains.
Modern cremation develops
What we now think of as cremation was not in practice until the late 1800s when the modern crematorium was devised. In that age of science and reform, cremation again gained ground as an efficient, hygienic way of burial. It was even sanctioned by Queen Victoria’s private surgeon.
In 1874, the first Cremation Society was founded in England by Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria. Two crematories were built, one in England and one in Germany, and shortly thereafter ones in Manchester, Glasgow, and Liverpool. Formal legislation permitting cremation in England and Wales followed with the Cremation Act of 1902.
In Australia, the first crematory was built in 1901 and was in full operation until the late 1950s. Also in 1874, the Association for Optional Cremation was founded in the Netherlands, but prohibitive laws were not removed until 1915 and cremation was not legally recognized until 1955.
At first the Roman Catholic Church was cautious about cremation because it believed the body to be an instrument with which to receive the sacraments. In 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban and later allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies in 1966.
In some parts of the world cremation is a matter of cost-efficiency and pragmatism, while in others it is a vital part of ritual and symbolic farewell. For example Switzerland, one of the countries consistently ranked as the happiest in the world, currently buries over three quarters of its deceased through cremation—an example of Westernized practicality. Meanwhile in India, Hindu practitioners use open-air cremation to lead the dead into their next life, a functional ideology that allows for closure.
While today’s cremation services look a lot different than those from Mungo Lake, the ancient concept remains the same.