History of Cremation

Cremation is not an alternative to funerals, it is an alternative to ground burial, sea burial, or the ancient Zoroastrian practice (5th century B.C.) of exposure on top of specially built stone structures termed Towers of Silence.

  • Evidence of cremation practices can be traced to prehistoric and preliterate times.
  • Historians accept generally that burning of dead bodies in the general vicinity of Eastern Europe and the Near East began during the early Stone Age, around 3000 B.C.
  • During the late Stone Age, the practice of cremation began to spread across northern Europe. Decorative pottery urns found in western Russia attest to cremations’ presence.
  • From the beginning to the middle of the Bronze Age (2500 B.C. to 800 B.C.), cremation practice migrated to the British Isles, Hungary, Northern Italy, Span, Portugal, Western Asia Minor, Northern Europe, and Ireland.
  • 1030-1010 B.C. Judaism prohibited cremation.
  • 1000 B.C. in the Mycenaean Age, the Greeks started using cremation as an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial customs. Pliny wrote about cremation practices  in the time of Homer, (800 B.C.). Cremation was used by the Greeks in many cases for the disposal of the dead. Cremation was encouraged for reasons of health and expedient burial of slain warriors in this battle-scarred country.
  • The early Romans appeared to have copied the Greeks by adopting cremation around 600 B.C., and it became so prevalent that official decrees were issued in the middle of the 5th century against cremating bodies within the city of Rome.
  • Virgil (70 B.C. – 19 B.C.) wrote about Roman cremation practices and endorsed the “extramural” (outside the city walls) approach to cremation. During the golden age of Rome (27 B.C. – 395 A.D.) cremation was widely practiced, and the development of elaborate cremation urns was a prized skill for artisans. Also during this period the columbarium buildings were developed to store the remains of many persons.
  • While the practice of cremation was common with the Romans, cremation had become a rare and disliked subject with the early Christians, who considered it pagan..
  • During the year 400 A.D., the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine had completely eliminated cremation as a possible way to dispose of the dead. The focus had shifted from the human body being an item of little importance to the religious conviction that the human body was sacred. Over the next 1,000 years, earth burial became the dominant  method of disposition throughout Europe. However, cremation still happened.
  • 177 A.D. the historian Eusebius (263 A.D. – 339 A.D.) described a Christian persecution in Lyon and afterwards the Romans cremated all the Christian martyrs as a way to mock the Christians, theology and belief in a literal bodily resurrection.
  • 217 A.D. the Emperor Severus (145 A.D. – 211 A.D.) died and was cremated in York in the British Isles. Seven years later his ashes were returned to Rome.
  • 381 A.D. the Emperor Theodosius (347 A.D. – 395 A.D.) forbade burials inside the walls of Rome and this also included cremations.
  • 700 A.D. Sharia Law prohibited cremation.
  • 789 A.D. Charlemagne (742 – 814) proclaimed that any cremation is punishable by death for those who participate.
  • 1300 – Pope Boniface (1235 – 1303) issued the statement that any Catholic who cremates or participates in cremation will be excommunicated.
  • 1409 – The first oven which can generate high heat was invented.
  • 1428 – Forty-four years after his death, Biblical translator John Wycliffe was exhumed and cremated as punishment for his heresy.
  • 1658 – Sir Thomas Browne wrote a book concerning funeral and cremation practices called Hydriotaphia Or Urn Burial.
  • 1710 – The wife of the Treasurer of Ireland publicly expressed her wish to be cremated.
  • 1826 – The first gas oven was invented.
  • 1869 to 1872 – Three Italian scientists worked independently to invent an oven which could generate enough heat to easily cremate a dead human body.
  • 1873. The Italian scientist and inventor Professor Brunetti perfected a cremation oven and displayed it at the Vienna Exposition.
  • 1874 – Sir Henry Thompson (1820-1904), physician to Queen Victoria, and was intrigued by the cremation oven at the Vienna Exposition. He eventually started the Cremation Society of England. Concern with dangerous cemetery conditions in England, hence possible health conditions prompted Sir Henry to begin the cremation society, and the first crematory to open in England was at Woking in 1878.
  • 1876 – Dr. Francis Julius Lemoyne built for himself the first crematory chamber in Washington, PA.
  • 1878 – The first crematory in Germany was built and opened in Gotha.
  • The Welsh eccentric, Dr. William Price attempted to cremate his dead child. He was arrested and challenged the legality of cremation in England. The courts sided with Dr. Price, and his court decision opened up the ability for people in England to cremate their dead.
  • 1884 – The first free standing public crematory was built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Other forces in the early formation of cremation in the United States came mostly from liberal Protestant clergy who desired to reform burial practices and from the medical profession concerned with health conditions around old cemeteries, particularly in metropolitan areas.
  • 1886 – Pope Leo XIII issued Canon Law 1203 which forbade cremation to Roman Catholics globally and also forbade Roman Catholics from joining cremation societies whose purpose the Roman Catholic Church feared was to deny the bodily resurrection.
  • 1899 – The Modern Cremationist Magazine began publication.
  • 1900 – Crematories sprang up throughout the United States and Great Britain. In 1900 there were already 20 crematories operating in the U.S., and by the time that Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded the Cremation Association of America in 1913 there were 52 crematories in North America.
  • 1902 – The first Cremation Act was passed in the British Parliament.
  • 1908 – The Catholic Encyclopedia referred to the practice of cremation as a “sinister movement.”
  • 1913 – The Cremation Society of American was founded.
  • 1937 – The International Cremation Federation was founded.
  • 1963 – Vatican II removed the strict prohibition against cremation.
  • 1969 – The Mungo Lady was discovered in Australia. Her cremated remains are from at least 40,000 years ago. Cremations in the United States accounted for about 4½% of remains.
  • 1975 – The Cremation Society of America changed its name to the Cremation Association of North American (CANA).
  • 2011- The cremation rate continues to grow, reaching 42% of all remains.
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