A Brief History of Cremation

Cremation is a funeral or post-funeral rite that serves as a way of  honoring a life well lived. Though it is an ancient practice that dates back to at least the Stone Age, it has run the gamut of Western opinion. In some eras, it was widely accepted, and in others, it was almost entirely shunned. 

The history of cremation, at least in the Western world, reflects both the necessity of honoring the dead and changing societal opinions.

, A Brief History of Cremation

Cremation: An Ancient Practice

As early as 3000 BCE, in the midst of the Stone Age, humans began cremating their dead in what is now Europe and the near East. By the late Stone Age, the practice seems to have spread, and there’s evidence of decorated pottery urns throughout Northern Europe and Western Russia. 

Soon after, during the Bronze Age, cremation practices continued to expand into the British Isles, Spain, Portugal, Northern Italy, and Ireland. 

By the time ancient Greeks built their empire, cremation had become the dominant burial custom, especially for those who died on the battlefield, due to health and sanitation concerns.

Cremation was prevalent with Grecian, and later Roman, warriors, and their families who wished to honor the deceased. Because of this, the practice took on a virtuous meaning. In ancient stories, like the Iliad, Zeus forces Achilles to surrender Hector’s body to his father, the King of Troy, to be royally cremated. This helps to indicate that people began to associate cremation with patriotism and glory. 

Cremation Becomes Taboo in the West

Early Christians weren’t too big on cremation, since many of them came from the Jewish religion and favored entombment or burial. By 400 CE, when Constantine Christianized Europe, burial became the norm in much of the Western world, and cremation became taboo. 

By this point, the only recorded cremations in Western history were during plague years or major wars, when getting rid of bodies as quickly as possible was paramount to any other concern. 

Outside of the Western world, though, cremation was still seen as honorable in many places. In India, Hindus past and present turned to cremation as their preferred end of life service. In Tibet, cremation was reserved for the highest lamas. And, in Laos, cremation was only for those who had a peaceful and prosperous life. 

Modern Cremation 

The Christian emphasis on burial over cremation lingered until the late 1800s. 

In 1873, an Italian professor named Lodovico Brunetti unveiled his modern cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. He, like many others, had become interested in the ancient practice of cremation and hoped to make it feasible in Europe’s cities. 

The interest in cremation came from concern about overcrowded cemeteries. Burial was the only agreed-upon option for European society, but cities were growing faster than their infrastructure could support. 

Prevalent surgeons, like the surgeon of Queen Victoria, Sir Henry Thompson, began to promote cremation as a better alternative. In his widely popular book, Cremation: The Treatment of the Body After Death, he proposed that cremation was a more sanitary practice. 

Other significant figures began to push for cremation as well, including Jacob Grimm (of the Grimm Brothers fairy tales), who addressed the Berlin Academy in 1849 to argue that cremation was a step forward for humanity. He said that the ability to manipulate fire separates humans from animals and that cremation represented the advent of religion. In his argument, burning the body represented the spirit rising to heaven, and thus it connected humans to their god.   

Driven by prominent public figures like these, crematories were increasingly built in Europe and North American cities, but general acceptance took some time. By 1913 there were 52 North American crematories. By 1975, the number was up to 425, with about 150,000 cremations per year. 

In 2016, the Vatican issued new guidelines approved by Pope Francis that clarified cremation is acceptable for Catholics but scattering (by air, land, or sea) is not.  The Vatican prescribed that remains be preserved in cemeteries and other sacred places.

Today, the cremation rate in the United States is around 56.1%, and in Canada, it’s 73.3%. Experts expect both numbers to continue climbing.  

Final Thoughts 

Since its foundation, Hollywood Forever has viewed cremation as an important end of life service option. Though civilization has come a long way from the open funeral pyres of ancient Greece and Rome, cremation remains a way of honoring our loved ones as we say goodbye. We hope you found this brief history of cremation interesting and helpful. 

We want to help you make the best decisions for you and your family to celebrate the memory of a life lived. If you have any questions about our cemetery, funeral home or cremation services, please contact us.


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