A History of Cremation in the West: Why Cremating Bodies Has Become so Popular

Cremation has been enjoying a steady increase in popularity over the last 100 years. In fact, the National Funeral Directors Association estimates that more than 70 percent of deaths will result in cremation by the year 2030. With the rise of cremation has come the rise of many different ways of dealing with the resulting ashes. From simple burial to diamonds to meaningful scattering ceremonies, these methods flourish because cremation is flourishing.

However, the last 100 years do not comprise the entire history of cremation. The practice has been around since about 3000 B.C., and has undergone many changes since then. From enjoying widespread popularity as a status symbol and public health campaign, to suffering from the rejection of Christianity and Judaism, to now serving as a popular gateway to other memorial efforts, cremation has a rich and varied past.

Cremation first took place up to 26,000 years ago, and became a periodic practice around 3000 B.C.

Perhaps the most famous cremated individual is the Mungo Lady. This woman was discovered in the 1960s near Lake Mungo, Australia, and appears to have been cremated twice, thanks to inefficient cremation procedures that did not completely incinerate her the first time.

The next evidence of cremation does not show up until the Stone Age, when the practice appears to have been only sporadic, due to limitations in wood and in the technology necessary to make a fire hot enough to consume the dead body.

The Greeks and the Romans first established the widespread use of cremation. Within these cultures, the reasons for the practice were twofold: To indicate the social status of the deceased and to deal with the public health hazards associated with traditional burial.

While cremation was not used as a regular method for dealing with the deceased during the Stone Age, it became much more widespread within the Greek and then Roman cultures from about 1000 B.C. to 400 A.D. While the technology for efficiently burning human corpses was still not developed, cremation became popular thanks to two driving forces: A desire to indicate the social status of the deceased, and a concern about the health hazards posed by poorly maintained burial grounds.

The use of cremation as a status symbol arose from its use as a practical and convenient way to dispose of the bodies of Greek soldiers who had died in battle. Because these soldiers were revered for their bravery, their method of disposal (cremation) soon became a sign that someone was a highly regarded individual.

This use of cremation to indicate status carried over into the Roman culture, where the size of the cremation fire was used to indicate the deceased’s importance. So extensive was the felling of trees for these fires that the Roman government eventually had to restrict the use of cremation due to a shortage of trees.

In addition, health concerns encouraged the acceptance of cremation among the Greeks and Romans. The Greek philosopher Plato discouraged the burial of remains in any fields that would be used to grow food, for example. In addition, burial grounds were often poorly kept and posed a health hazard, a danger that could be avoided by the use of cremation.

Cremation suffered a lengthy setback beginning in 400 A.D., thanks to the rise of Christianity and its teachings about the resurrection from the dead.

Cremation’s period of ascendancy came to a rather abrupt halt in 400 A.D. when Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, outlawed the practice. In the almost 400 years since Christianity had joined the world history scene, Christians had mostly opposed cremation. They felt that to embrace cremation was to reject the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead, and the burning of Christians had been used by the Romans to mock the religion and to attempt to prevent followers’ eventual resurrection.

When Constantine became a Christian., therefore, he mandated that the entire Roman Empire adopt the traditional Christian stance on cremation. Thus began 1,500 years in which cremation was almost entirely banned from the Roman Empire and then from many other places throughout the West.

During this period, cremation was used mostly as an emergency measure (such as during the time of the Black Death) and as punishment (for example, Wycliffe’s body was dug up and burned because the Catholic Church viewed him as a heretic).

The rise of cremation technology made efficient cremation possible. It also contributed to a movement in support of cremation.

In 1873, cremation underwent a major turning point with the invention of an oven that could burn human bodies. The oven, invented by an Italian Professor Brunetti, was displayed at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. From there, cremation gradually established a foothold throughout the West.

Cremation societies sprang up with the purpose of encouraging the legalization and use of cremation. Crematories were established in Europe and the United States. And, eventually, the practice began to become commonplace. Its rise in popularity since then has been a steady one, and today, the resurgence in its popularity means that more people are cremated than are buried.

The current popularity of cremation also means that ashes can now be used to create almost any type of memorial desired by the deceased person’s friends and family.

The popularity of cremation has also led to the rise of a wide array of options for dealing with the bodies of the deceased. The remains left behind after cremation are commonly referred to as cremains. And there are many more ways to deal with cremains than there are to deal with an unburned body. Literally dozens of options exist, from encasing the ashes in a piece of jewelry, to scattering the ashes, burying the urn, having the cremains turned into bullets and fireworks, to having them used in tattoos, to having them turned into diamonds and worn in jewelry, and more.

These options are as individual as the grieving friends and family. It is unclear if cremation will remain popular for the long-term, but what is certain is that people will continue to look for unique ways to honor the memory of the unique loved ones they have lost, and cremation gives them a way to do so.