History of Cremation
Cremation is not a modern phenomenon. Its history points back all the way to the Stone Age, somewhere back to around 3000 B.C. The practice was most common in Europe, where it spread rapidly across the region. Decorative pottery and urns found in Western Russia and amongst the Slavic peoples are the biggest troves of information, showing that cremation was in fact commonly accepted at that time. The Bronze Age (2500-1000 B.C) saw cremation move into the British Isles, as well as Spain and Portugal. While at first cremation remains were simply scattered, Hungary and Italy began burying cremation them, a practice which quickly spread to other parts of Europe. By around 1000 B.C., known as the Mycenean Age, cremation was already a huge part of Greek burial customs and traditions, and by 800 B.C., the time of Homer, it was the main method of disposing of the deceased. In an era of mass wars and disease, cremation was the most hygenic way to deal with the deceased, and was much faster and more efficient for handling death when on the battlefield. Following the footsteps of the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans began practicing cremation in 600 B.C., with such popularity that regulations sprung up limiting areas of the city in which bodies could be cremated. The Roman Empire popularized the use of elaborate urns, as well as decorative buildings for storing these urns. By 395 A.D., cremation was widely practiced, being considered more ‘prestigious’ than traditional burial.
However, as the Roman Empire dwindled, and Christianity began to take hold of the world, the practice of cremation came to be considered a pagan practice. The Judeo-Christian religions preferred traditional entombment to cremation, with the idea being that the body would remain intact for the coming of the messiah. By 400 A.D., with Constantine’s Christianization of the Holy Roman Empire, earth burials had becomes common practice, and only during times of plague or war would cremation be used to dispose of mass amounts of bodies. For the following 1500 years, the tradition of earth burial was not challenged.
Surprisingly, cremation did not see a resurgence until just under 150 years ago, when Professor Brunetti, an Italian scholar, perfected a chamber that could house cremation remains. He presented it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, and people from across the globe began to look to cremation as a new and viable option for post-mortem situations.
The popularity of the movement was mainly due to hygienic reasons; with cemeteries overflowing, and diseases running rampant, cremation was a means of minimizing health risks. In the United Kingdom, Sir Henry Thompson founded the Cremation Society of England. Acting on behalf of Queen Victoria, he saw it as a means of reducing hazardous health conditions, and of limiting dangerously full cemeteries. Official crematories were opened across Europe in 1878, in cities such as Gotha, Germany, and Woking, England.
Shortly after the Vienna Exposition, cremation saw a resurgence in North America, headed by Dr. Julius LeMoyne in 1876. He established the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania, and shortly after a second crematory was opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Both of these were operated by cremation societies, along with protestant clergy and medical professionals. Their reasoning was motivated mainly by deteriorating health conditions around cemeteries, but desire to reform burial practices played a role as well.
With cremation becoming more and more popular in North America, crematories began to pop up in Buffalo, New York, Detroit, LA, Pittsburgh, and so on, with over 20 operational crematories across America by 1990. With the founding of the Cremation Association of America by Dr. Erichsen in 1913, over 50 different crematories were operating in the United States. By 1975, Canada had begun opening its own crematories, and the CAA was reformed into the Cremation Association of North America. By this point there were more than 400 operational crematories in North America.
Today, more than 2000 crematories exist across North America, and it’s expected that more than half of all deaths will be laid to rest through cremation by 2018.
Knowing this complicated history, you can understand what the motivations are for cremation.