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Cremation is one of the most common forms of death rituals. For eastern cultures, including Indo-Aryan derived groups, cremation has long been practice for the departed. More recently, cremation has also emerged as a way to conserve space and was used to prevent the spread of disease in crowded countries such as in the UK. There are both scientific and spiritual reasons for its emergence.
Origin of Cremation
The first evidence of cremation emerges at least 20,000 years ago in Australia, although very likely it is even older than that and occurred somewhere in Africa or Asia. It is not clear why cremation first emerged but it could either be due to emerging ritualistic practice or even the removal of bodies from a community so as to avoid the spread of disease. In fact, both reasons could be true.
By the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago, cremation was more widespread in Europe and the Near East. It seems for some time, both practices were used, sometimes together in the same community, suggesting that one form of burial practice may have not become over dominant or the only accepted form of burial. This began to change by the Chalcolithic period at about 7000-6000 years ago. By then, emerging patterns suggest that cremation could have been more specific to given cultural groups. Semitic populations in the Near East, for instance, strictly avoided cremation, where their religious practice prohibited it and suggested it would have adverse effect either in the afterlife or for the living by haunting those who committed the practice. These prohibitions in the Semitic and Afro-Semitic populations, such as in Palestine, ancient Mesopotamia, and Egypt, continued through historical periods.
Cremation emerges as common phenomenon in the Bronze Age (about 5000-4000 years ago) in Europe and South Asia. In central and northern Europe, cultures from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (about 3000 years ago) appear to switch at times from burial to cremation. This could be because of changing cultures due to invasions and migrations that occurred. The Myceneans generally preferred inhumation, while later Greeks did practice cremation, likely influenced by Anatolian cultures that also were influenced by Iranian and Indian cultures (i.e., the Indo-Aryan migrations that occurred in the 2nd millennium BCE).
The longest, continual practice of cremation does appear to be in the Indian sub-continent, where early Indus cultures and later ancient Indian societies continued to bury their dead even before the full emergence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Ancient China and Japan appeared to have buried their dead, although this practice would later change.
Up until the Roman period, cremation was common in Europe, including southern Europe. With the rise of Christianity, cremation began to die out as a practice throughout Europe as Christianity spread. In fact, Christians began to associate cremation as a pagan act, sometimes even seeing it as a type of fire sacrifice to the ancient gods rather than as a burial practice. Judaism had a strong prohibition regarding cremation and this likely influenced Christianity's prohibition that the church adopted. This is also true for Zoroastrians, which originated with Iranian cultures. In their case, bodies were left for birds to eat. Cremation, for Zoroastrians, was seen as corrupting the sacred fire. For Christians, cremation was seen as desecrating the body during the day of resurrection. With the influence of Christianity, cremation largely disappeared after the 1st millennium CE in Europe. Islam also had derived from Semitic origins, which meant it had also prohibited cremation since it was seen as desecrating the body.
Cremation was at times practiced in Europe, but usually it was done as a form of punishment. For instance, during the Protestant Reformation period in the 16th century and later, Protestants were sometimes burned or their bodies were ritually burned as a way to prevent them from entering the afterlife. This, in a way, was similar to being burned at the stake, where this punishment was intended to prevent an afterlife as well as act as punishment.
On the other hand, cremation spread in East Asia as Buddhism influenced Han Chinese and Japan. Thus, while cremation began to disappear from Europe and the Middle East, it now spread in East Asia to areas where it was previously prohibited, such as in China (Figure 2).
By the 17th century, doctors and some others influenced by emerging science began to call for the use of cremation as a means to dispose of the dead in a sanitary way in Western coutnries. It became increasingly evident that disease could be prevented from spreading by cremation. By 1870s, both in Florence and the UK, the idea of cremation began to be advocated even more greatly by physicians in Western Europe. Sir Henry Thomson, who was a physician to Queen Victoria, was the first prominent official in the UK to advocate cremation. During the Victorian period, the population was growing rapidly. New cemeteries, such as Woking Cemetery, were created for the now far greater number of bodies as high population also meant high death rates. For physicians, they increasingly became concerned that cemeteries could not keep up with demand and that bodies not properly buried would spread disease.
This, along with a publicized court case against an individual who wanted to cremate their child, led to the eventual agreement by the government to allow cremation, with Queen Victoria's backing. This paved the way for the construction of the first Crematorium in Woking, which also was conveniently located near the largest cemetery in the UK (Brookwood Cemetery). The benefit was that it also saved money for families and individuals who could not afford a normal funeral. The Victorian period was also known for a high number of impoverished people, which became an expense for local governments to bury if nobody claimed their bodies. With cremation, bodies can be more cheaply removed for those who were not claimed after their death. It still took some years after the 1870s for the crematorium to be built and tested, where finally in 1885 cremations became an option for the general population.
Meanwhile, cremations began to be practiced in Germany in 1878, with the town of Gotha adopting the practice. In the United States, the practice began also at about the same time in 1876. In the United States, cremations became increasingly legalized as people argued that dead bodies began to contaminate water systems, thus it became necessary to cremate in high density locations (Figure 2).
While cremations increasingly became accepted in the Western world in the late 19th century, what finally made it even more acceptable to more religious populations was the Pope lifting the Catholic Church's ban on cremation in 1963. This, in some way, was also due to pressure from poorer Catholics who often could not afford normal burial and thus found cremation as a cheaper alternative. For Protestants, most denominations became more accepting of cremations after World War I. Modern crematoriums were considered different in how they burned bodies, thus they were no longer seen as being part of pagan ritual by those who were more religiously inclined.
Cremation, at its origin, seems to have been a practice that was done along with inhumation of the deceased. By the early historical periods in the Bronze Age, we begin to see some cultures having more specific burial practices, often only selecting inhumation or cremation. Some societies, such as in Europe, often switched between the two. By the Christian era, a stark divide emerged between Western regions in the Middle East and Europe and East Asia. In East Asia, cremation practices spread with Buddhism, as that religion spread, while in the Western cremation became prohibited and sinful, with rare exception performed on those seen as criminals or against Christianity. It was only in the late 19th century, with high population growth and the desire to prevent disease spread, that authorities slowly relaxed laws prohibiting cremations. Soon after, cremation facilities throughout Europe and the United States opened.
- For more on the origins of cremation, see: Jessica Cerezo-Román, Anna Wessman, & Howard Williams (eds.) (2017) Cremation and the archaeology of death. First edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- For more on burial practices that emerged in the Old World, see: Ian Kuijt, Colin P. Quinn, & Gabriel Cooney (eds.) (2014) Transformation by fire: the archaeology of cremation in cultural context. Amerind studies in anthropology. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press.
- For more on the spread of cremation practices by Indo-Aryans, see: Parpola, A. (2015) The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization. New York, Oxford University Press.
- For more on the prohibition on cremation in monotheistic faiths, see: Beard, M., North, J.A. & Price, S.R.F. (1998) Religions of Rome. Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press, pg. 18.
- For more on some acts of cremation in Christianity, see: Eric Venbrux, Thomas Quartier, Claudia Venhorst, Brenda Mathijssen, et al. (eds.) (2013) Changing European death ways. Death studies volume 1. Zürich, Lit, pg. 122.
- For more on the spread of cremation in East Asia, see: Michael Dickhardt (ed.) (2016) Religion, place, and modernity: spatial articulations in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Social sciences in Asia VOLUME 40. Leiden, Brill.
- For more on the early development of crematoriums in Europe, see: Avril Maddrell & James D. Sidaway (eds.) (2010) Deathscapes: spaces for death, dying, mourning and remembrance. Surrey ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate, pg. 244.
- For more on cremations in the United States, see: Prothero, S.R. (2001) Purified by fire: a history of cremation in America. Berkeley, University of California Press.
- For more on the lifting of prohibitions against cremation by major Christian denominations, see: Douglas James Davies & Lewis H. Mates (eds.) (2005) Encyclopedia of cremation. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate, pg. 383.