Cremation is the burning of the human body until its soft parts are destroyed by fire. The skeletal remains and ash residue (cremains) often become the object of religious rites, one for the body and one for the bones. The anthropologist Robert Hertz has described this as a double burial, with a "wet" first phase coping with the corpse and its decay, and a "dry" second phase treating the skeletal remains and ash. The chief difference between cremation and burial is the speed of transformation: Corpses burn in two hours or less, but bodies take months or years to decay, depending upon methods used and local soil conditions. The method of body disposal least like cremation is mummification, which seeks to preserve the body rather than destroy it.
Archaeological evidence shows cremation rituals dating back to ancient times. In classical antiquity, cremation was a military procedure and thus was associated with battlefield honors. Both cremation and the interment of cremated remains are described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, both dating from the eighth century B.C.E. The seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin echoed another classical story in his masterpiece The Ashes of Phocion, perhaps the most famous of all cremation-linked paintings, in which a faithful wife gathers the ashes of her husband, an improperly shamed leader who was cremated without the proper rites.
The ritual cremation of Roman emperors involved the release of an eagle above the cremation pyre to symbolize his deification and the passing of the emperor-god's spirit. The reasons for shifts between cremation and burial in classical times are not always apparent; fashion or even the availability of wood may have been involved.
It was in India and in the Indian-influenced cultures of Buddhism and Sikhism that cremation developed into a central and enduring social institution. Basic to Hinduism is the belief that the life force underlying human existence is not restricted to one life but undergoes numerous transmigrations that may involve nonhuman forms. Hence the "self" and the identity of an individual are not simply and inevitably linked to any one body. Cremation became an appropriate vehicle for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life and the eternity of spiritual life.
Hinduism. For traditional Hindus, cremation fit into an overall scheme of destiny. Symbolically, the human embryo resulted from the combination of male seed forming bones and female blood providing flesh. In this account the spirit enters the fetus through the cranial suture of the skull, with the growing embryo in a sense being "cooked" by the heat of the womb. At the end of life, a symbolic reversal sees the heat of the funeral pyre separating flesh from bones; the rite of skull-cracking frees the spirit for its ongoing journey, which is influenced by karma, or merit accrued during life. The fire itself is the medium by which the body is offered to the gods as a kind of last sacrifice; cremation should take place in Banaras, the sacred city through which the sacred Ganges River flows. It is on the banks of the Ganges that cremations occur and cremated remains are placed in its holy waters. Hindus living in other parts of the world also practice cremation and either place cremated remains in local rivers or send the remains to be placed in the Ganges. While rites are also performed for set periods after cremation, there is no monument for the dead, whose ultimate destiny lies in the future and not in some past event.
Buddhism. Cremation is the preferred funeral rite for Buddhists as well and is reinforced by the fact that the Buddha was himself cremated. Tradition tells how his funeral pyre self-ignited, but only after many followers had come to pay respects to his body. When the flames ceased, no ash remained—only bones. These remains were divided into eight parts and built into eight stupas in different territories. This is a good example of how cremation makes possible a greater variety of memorializing the dead than does burial. Contemporary Buddhists practice both cremation and burial.
Evil and Emergency Cremation
Cremation is not only an established social custom but has also been used on battlefields to save the dead from the ravages of the enemy and as an emergency measure during plagues, as in the Black Death of the seventeenth century. The most inescapably negative use of cremation in human history was during the Holocaust, the Nazi regime's mass murder of millions of Jews and others, including Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill, all deemed culturally unacceptable to Hitler's Third Reich during World War II. The Nazi concentration camps came to symbolize the inhumanity of killing men, women, and children and then disposing of their bodies by cremation or mass burial. In this case, cremation was a kind of industrial process necessary to deal with the immense number of corpses that attended Hitler's "Final Solution."
With the increasing predominance of Christianity in Europe after the fifth century C.E., cremation was gradually abandoned in favor of earth burial as a symbol of the burial and resurrection of Christ. Charlemagne criminalized cremation in the Christian West in 789 C.E. There were subsequent countercurrents, including the unusual seventeenth-century treatise of Sir Thomas Browne on urn burial, Hydriotaphia (1658), and the brief French revolutionary attempt to foster cremation as a rebuke to Christianity in the 1790s.
It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that a widespread interest in cremation resurfaced, prompted by a variety of social, philosophical, and technological factors. The major social elements related to massive increases in the population of industrial towns and major cities, whose cemeteries were increasingly hard-pressed to cope with the volume of the dead in an era of heightened concern with public hygiene—corpses buried near the surface of the ground were seen as a potential health risk. This was also a period of considerable interest in freedom of thought and creative engagement with ideas of progress. Traditional religious constraints were not viewed as impossible barriers to progress. Societies were established to promote cremation in many influential cities, including London and The Hague in 1874, Washington, D.C., in 1876, and New York in 1882. Central to these interest groups lay influential people as with Sir Henry Thompson (surgeon to Queen Victoria), whose highly influential book on cremation, The Treatment of the Body after Death, was published in 1874, followed shortly by William Eassie's Cremation of the Dead in 1875.
Italy was a major force in the renaissance of cremation; Brunetti's model cremator and display of cremated remains at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 are credited with having prompted Sir Henry Thompson's interest. There was also a congress on cremation in Milan in 1874. These groups often existed for years before they achieved the goal of cremation as a legal and established practice. In Holland, for example, the 1874 group did not actually open a crematorium until 1914. Often there were objections from a variety of Christian churches, which contended that cremation would interfere with the resurrection of the body or that cremation spurned the example of the "burial" of Jesus. Sometimes the reasons were political rather than theological. Catholics in Italy, for example, found cremation unacceptable because it was favored and advocated by the anticlerical Free-masons. Indeed, it was not until the mid-1960s that the Roman Catholic Church accepted cremation as an appropriate form of funeral for its members.
The preoccupation with technological advancement in the nineteenth century also spurred the fortunes of cremation. It had become relatively easy to contemplate building ovens for the combustion of human bodies as well as architectural features to house them. Machines like the cremulator, for grinding larger bone fragments into dust, are similarly industrial in nature. The early crematoria were temporary, little more than ovens or grandly designed landmarks. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they began to resemble church buildings; in the late twentieth century there was more scope for architects to reflect upon life and death in these unique structures.
In the late twentieth century cremation became a serious topic of academic study. It was only at the turn of the twenty-first century that serious academic interest in cremation—sociological, theological, and historical—emerged. The numerous journals published by many cremation societies have also made important contributions, systematically recording cremation rates, new crematoria, and technical developments. The Archives of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, held at the University of Durham, is one example, as is the Fabretti Institute of Turin in Italy.
Christian Traditions and Cultures
The most interesting aspect of the relationship between cremation and society within Western societies derives from the relative influence of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. Greek and Russian Orthodoxy stand in firm opposition to cremation, and cremation rates are very low in strict Orthodox societies such as Greece. During the communist era in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, cremation was often pressed in an ideological fashion, which in turn spurred stronger opposition from various Christian denominations.
In Western Europe cremation rates vary with the degree of Catholic or Protestant influence in each country's tradition. In 1999 the cremation rate in Great Britain and Denmark was 71 percent and 68 percent in Sweden. In Finland, by contrast, with equally strong Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, the rate was only 25 percent. The Netherlands, roughly equally divided between Protestant and Catholic traditions, stood at 48 percent. The Catholic influence is more evident in Hungary (30%), Austria (21%), France (16%), Spain (13%), Italy (5%), and Ireland (5%).
The United States presents an interesting picture of mixed religious traditions with an overall cremation rate of approximately 25 percent. This may seem an unusually low figure, but it encompasses a wide variation in local practices. Washington, Nevada, and Oregon, have cremation rates of approximately 57 percent while Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia are about 5 percent.
Social Change and Cremation
In the West, the turn of the twentieth century saw the rise of strongly motivated individuals, often coalescing into small pressure groups that were ideologically committed to cremation. After World War II cremation began to be incorporated into social welfare provisions in numerous countries. Just as the urban growth of the middle and late nineteenth century had led to the establishment of many large cemeteries in European cities, so the later twentieth century was marked by the growth of crematoria. Cremation was a symptom not only of massive urbanization and the drive for social hygiene but also an increased medicalization of death. With more people dying in hospitals rather than at home, their bodies were collected by funeral directors and might be kept in special premises away from their home. Indeed the very concept of the "funeral home" developed to mark a place where a body could be kept and visited by the bereaved family. Cremation thus was another example of a rising trend of commercialization and professionalization of various aspects of life in the West. Cremation was but one aspect of a broader tendency toward efficiency, scientific technology, and consumer choice. It also served the psychological function of allaying the fears of those who were haunted by irrational fears of decay or of being buried alive. Cremation is also often less expensive than burial.
Although the upward trend in cremation continued unabated through the late twentieth century, there was a slight ripple of concern emanating from the environmental community, which pointed to the deleterious effect of industrial and domestic emission of gases—many communities have adopted more stringent laws for the running of cremators. On a populist front, this raised a question mark over the desirability of cremation. In Great Britain some minority groups have raised the idea of "green" woodland burials in which individuals are buried without elaborate coffins or caskets and in full recognition that their bodies would soon return to the earth in a form of earth-friendly decay.
Cremation, Privatization, and Secularization
As Christianity achieved dominance in Europe in its first millennium and firmly established itself geographically in the second, it imposed a much more formal theology and ritual, not least over death. Catholic Christianity's funerary rites included preparation of the dying for their eternal journey, along with masses and prayers for their migrant souls. Cemeteries were closely aligned with churches, and death rites were under ecclesiastical control.
With the advent of cremation, there arose a new possibility disengaging death rites from ecclesiastical control. For much of the late nineteenth century and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the great majority of cremation rites were set within a religious ritual framework overseen by the Protestant clergy. Catholic priests were also freed to do so from the mid-1960s, but by the late twentieth century clerical involvement in cremation was on the wane. Traditional burial was conducted under the control of a Christian church, and though remains might later have been removed to a charnel house (a place for storing human bones), the transfer was often a nonceremonial affair. Burials in some places could also be conducted without church rites, but it was with modern cremation that a secular process appeared more acceptable. Often the emphasis on what came to be called "life-centered" funerals was celebratory, with a focus on the past life of the deceased and not, as in traditional Christian rites, on the future hope of resurrection.
In contrast to the traditional practice of placing cremated remains in urns and storing them in columbaria (buildings containing niches in their walls), late-twentieth-century practices in the West have included the removal of cremated remains from crematoria by family members and their placement in locations of personal significance. This was the birth of a new tradition as individuals invented ways of placing remains in natural environments: mountains, rivers, gardens, or places of recreation and holiday where the survivors acknowledged that the deceased had spent pleasant and memorable times.
Davies, Douglas J. "Theologies of Disposal." In Peter C. Jupp and Tony Rogers eds., Interpreting Death: Christian Theology and Pastoral Practice. London: Cassell, 1997.
Davies, Douglas J. Cremation Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham, England: Alcuin/GROW Books, 1990.
Jupp, Peter C. From Dust to Ashes: The Replacement of Burial by Cremation in England 1840–1967. London: Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, 1990.
Parry, Jonathan P. Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Prothero, Stephen. Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
DOUGLAS J. DAVIES