Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cremations in History

A columbarium in Oakland.

There is archaeological evidence of cremation in the Stone Age, around 3000 B.C. in both Europe and the near East. During the late Stone Age, the act of burning the dead spread across Europe and into western Russia. In the Bronze Age, 2500-1000 B.C., this practice found its way through the British Isles and the land that would be known as Spain and Portugal. Cremation was an elaborate Greek burial custom between 1000-480 B.C. that peaked in the time of Homer, around 800 B.C., when the country was ravaged by war. They would cremate the bodies of fallen soldiers in open fires and gather up the ashes and bones for burial when they returned home.
In Iron and Viking Ages, cremation was the practice used for the majority of funerals in Sweden. Around 600 B.C. Rome took to cremation and it became the standard method of disposing of the dead. More elaborate rituals evolved around their cremations, with days-long feasting and pyres 30 feet tall. Between 27 B.C. and 395 C.E. buildings called columbariums were erected to inter the cremated remains of the dead.
Early Christians considered cremation a pagan ritual and by 400 C.E., when the Roman Emperor Constantine had chosen to follow Christian beliefs, earth burials replaced the practice of cremation within the Empire. Six hundred years later, Iceland finally converted to this new religion. From that point on, in Western culture, cremations were extremely rare until the 1800s in Europe. They were performed only in times of emergency. Cremation was popular under Buddhist influence in both China and Korea until the 1300s, when Neo-Confucianism brought burials to the forefront of practice.
In 1656, when the Black Death crossed the European continent, 60,000 victims were burned in just one week in Naples. Two years later, Sir Thomas Browne of England promoted cremation as an acceptable means of honoring the dead. The first recorded cremation in Britain occurred September 26, 1769, but it was an illegal one. Honoretta Pratt was burned in her open grave at St. George’s Burial Ground. A plaque was later placed there saying that she believed the vapors of all the dead bodies were harmful to the populous so she asked that her body be burnt, that she might lead by example so others would follow. During the French Revolution, in the late 1780s, freemasons and anarchists promoted cremation as a means of reducing the church’s role in the funeral process.
Hinduism mandated cremation, in order to dispose of the body and free the soul into the next life or rebirth. Open funeral pyres were and are common in India. It was also a common practice to burn the widow of the deceased alive with him on his pyre, known as suttee. It is an English term derived from the word sati, which is what the wife of the deceased was called. There are documented accounts of suttees as early as the first century C.E. In Hindu belief, a sati was the opposite of a widow. Widows were bad because if they had been good wives, their husbands would not have died. For a woman to immolate herself as a sati was a way of winning back honor for her family. Often the eldest son would be the one to set the fire. In the early 1800s, in one year alone, 400 suttee deaths were reported within a 30 mile radius of Calcutta. It was outlawed by the British rule in 1825, though regular cremation for the deceased remained.
Everything changed in 1873, when Professor Brunetti of Italy exhibited a practical cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. A year later, Queen Victoria’s Surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, founded the Cremation Society of England with fellow colleagues. In 1878, the first European crematoriums were built in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany. It wasn’t until 1885, seven years later, that the first official cremation took place in the UK, in Woking, for Mrs. Jeannette C. Pickersgill. The next year 10 more bodies were cremated.
Cremation was still illegal in Japan in 1876, when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first U.S. crematorium in Washington, Pennsylvania. There were only two recorded cremations occurring in the U.S. prior to 1800. The second crematorium opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1884, owned and operated by an established Cremation Society. By 1900, there were 20 crematoriums operating in the U.S. including Buffalo, New York City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded the Cremation Association of America in 1913, when there were 52 working crematoriums and over 10,100 cremations performed that year.
The Roman Catholic Church renounced cremation, although it wasn’t against church dogma. It is perhaps because of how strongly the Protestants advocated for cremation, both as a means of limiting the church’s influence on funeral processes and as a call for a need in burial reforms at the turn of the century. The Church softened their position in the 1960s and allowed for the practice to be chosen without penalty.
In 1970, only 8% of dead were cremated in America. In 1975 there were over 435 crematoriums in the country and 150,000 cremations were performed. In 1999, cremation accounted for 25.39% of deaths, with over 1,468 crematoriums now in use and 595,617 services performed. Six states had a cremation rate of more than 50%: Arizona, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington. At this point, cremation had become a universal means of disposing of the dead in Japan, just one hundred and thirty years after it was illegal.
In 2001, the National Funeral Directors Association reported that, depending on additions to the service, the average cremation cost between $300-$3,000, much lower than the average cost of a burial funeral, which was listed as $6,130. There are now over 2,100 crematoriums in America and over 900,000 cremations are performed a year. Cremation occurs widely in at least 31 countries around the world: 97% in Japan, 75% in Switzerland, 70% in Great Britain, 65% in Scandanavia, 38% in Canada, 37% in America, 2% in Ghana, just to name a few.
Most opposition to cremation is religious in nature, specifically Orthodox Judaism and Islam. Most other religions allow for its members to choose what method of body disposition is most meaningful to them. In cremation, the body is placed into a durable container in the chamber and heated to 1,600-1,800 degrees. After two and a half hours, all that remains are bone fragments, called cremains. After they cool, the crematory breaks them down into fine particles through a mechanical process, after which they are placed in an urn or box. What we call ashes are actually these powdered bone fragments.
It is illegal to cremate more than one body at a time. Most funeral homes have to contract out to a third-party crematorium, which incurs an additional transportation fee, though it is possible to deal directly with the crematorium in these cases. Some funeral homes have the facilities to perform them on the premises. It is possible to be present when the body is placed in the cremation chamber. If a body is being cremated, but a viewing is desired beforehand, a casket can be rented for the viewing from the funeral home; you do not have to purchase one. After the cremation, the remains are yours to do with what you wish. You can put them on the mantle, bury them, inter them in a columbarium, or scatter them in a location preferable to the deceased. Cremations are becoming more popular in the US, as they cost about a third less that average funerals.

The reality is we can’t all choose cremation. It’s possible that part of the end of cremation in the Roman Empire had a little something to do with the resources of timber expended in their elaborate pyres for each person. In the modern age, we use gas and energy to fuel the cremation chambers; resources that are finite. Not to mention that 573 lbs of carbon dioxide are released into the air for each cremation, as well as .8-5.9 grams of mercury from dental work, and toxins from bodies that were embalmed first. Seventy-five percent of the mercury dissipates into the atmosphere but the rest of it falls back to land and settles in the earth and ground water. Multiply 573 lbs of carbon and .8-5.9 grams of mercury per person by the current U.S. population of 315,398,368 people... I can’t imagine there’s enough forest left in our country to transform that carbon dioxide into oxygen. Cremations release 1,000-7,800 pounds of mercury in the U.S. every year and we use enough energy in cremation in a year to travel to the moon and back 85 times.
Still, I cannot ignore the number of people I know who have no financial choice but cremation when a loved one dies, or the many cultures who are attached to the process. After the tsunami ravaged Japan in 2011, their crematoriums could not attend to the number of dead, which was over 19,000 known deaths with several thousand still listed as missing. Bodies were buried in shallow graves but families, who saw that as a desecration, were stealing the bodies of their beloved during the night and burning them in open fires in secret. But where will the line be where we have to put the cost of our choices to the earth beneath us ahead of our religious, spiritual, and aesthetic desires?


  1. Definitely, cremations have long history. During the Roman Empire era, the dead is disposed off by fire and kept in earthen jar or pottery and until now they can be found in archeological sites in Europe.
    burial at sea ceremony

  2. This was a very interesting post. I had no idea all those things were possible. I am looking for a Chicago cremation service. I then found your blog. I'm glad I did. Thank you.

  3. I didn't know that cremation had been around so long. I became a little more interested after I found out about the cremation services in Denver. How does it compare to other ways of burial?

  4. Thanks for commenting, Bill! It's a matter of preference. Both cremation and burial use fuel and resources to do. Cremation adds to the carbon dioxide in the air and uses a high heat to burn the body, but the cremains don't have to be dealt with immediately and it's much cheaper. Burial allows you to have a resting place but where you have to be sealed in a casket and in a vault in the ground because you have been embalmed- it's like a box of toxic chemicals... and your body. I really like the movement of green burials, without casket or vault, where your body is allowed to decompose and feed the earth around and above it.

  5. Great site, cremations has been around for thousands of years and Romans had been practicing. Today, it can be a good option but other methods do exists such as resomation where chemical and high pressure are used to dissolve the body thereby leaving bones behind. And ashes can be disposed off by burial at sea ceremony , scattered at any area requested by the departed or simply kept at home.

  6. Is there any way to rehabilitate a body after it has gone through the cremation services? There was confusion on the burial plan. Is this possible?

    1. Jameel, I am not sure what you mean by rehabilitate... if you explain more, I would be happy to answer your question. Was it the deceased's wish that they be buried, but they were cremated?

  7. I really like the information that is shared here. I have really learned to appreciate cremation services since I was younger.

  8. Awesome article. It is amazing what history all of this has. I went by the place where they do cremation in Chicago Heights last week and next time I go by I will have a totally different perspective.

  9. I just recently heard of people selling cremation services door to door? Is this something they usually do? I've been looking into cremation services in Newport News, VA and don't really know how this all works. Thanks for the article it gave me a little insight. I would still like to learn more.

  10. Very well said, in fact, that method has been around for thousands of years, and in this present times, more are accepting this method.
    scattering ashes at sea

  11. I've always thought about getting cremation services in Chicago IL after I die. What do you think?

  12. I think that ideally, we should bury our dead in the ground, chemical-free, without boxes. I'm also good with the old customs of sky burials. I hope to be able to figure out a green burial for myself, but I will be cremated before I let anyone embalm or bury me in a box. I think at this time in our culture, the embalming burials can/have wrought just as much damage as releasing carbon into the atmosphere. We can't all be cremated the way the process is done now, without being able to filter the carbon out. But I do think it's about making the best choice available for the environment of where you live.

  13. Each form of cremation in every different culture in the past had their own unique characteristics. That fact about cremation proves that this process has evolved along with its history. But I guess that, more than the process, the most important thing to consider is the rites that come after – and that includes settling the bones or ashes of the dead to its resting place here on earth. In any way, thanks for sharing that informative post, Sarah! Kudos and all the best to you!

    Chastity Gamboa @ Usher Funeral Home


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