Ashes to Ashes: The Origins of Cremation and Cremation Urns

For as long as cremation has existed, it has been a hot button issue among people and beliefs. While some cultures and religions support cremation, some find it macabre, and even more find it downright disgusting and say it is an improper way to dispose of a body. Whether you support cremation or not, it stands as one of the longest running processes, and memorial traditions, in the history of our species.

Cremation From The Beginning

Cremation has been around for a very, very long time. Scholars today generally agree that cremation began during the early Stone Age ~3000 B.C. in Europe and The Near East. Near the end of the Stone Age, cremation practices began to spread to northern Europe, as can be seen from historical finds of decorative pottery in the Slavic regions of Russia. With the onset of the Bronze Age, cremation began to move into the British Isles and Ireland and into what is now known as Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries for cremation develop in Hungary and northern Italy and also spread to northern Europe.

Cremation In The Classical Eras

By the time of the Greeks, cremation had become an integral and elaborate part of the Grecian burial customs. It even became the dominant method of disposition by the time of Homer in 800 B.C. and was actually encouraged for health reasons and was an expedient burial method for soldiers slain in war. Cremation was seen by many classic cultures as a very hygienic disposal of human remains, especially after plagues ravaged many of the early cities.

Following the Grecian trend, historians note that the early Romans began using cremation as part of their funeral rites around 600 B.C. and became so prevalent that the Roman Senate had to put a ban against the cremation of bodies within the city during this time. By the time of the Roman Empire, cremation became widely practiced, and cremains were placed in elaborate urns and often stored in niches in columbarium style buildings. Even though the practice was popular and part of Roman society, cremation was rare with the early Christians who considered it pagan along with Jewish culture where traditional burial is preferred.

By 400 A.D., as a result of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, earth burial had completely replaced cremation except for rare instances such as plague and war, and for the next 1,500 years this would be the accepted mode of burial throughout Europe.

Modern Cremation

Modern cremation, as we know it today, began in the 19th century. The modern cremation movement started almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic after Professor Brunetti of Italy perfected and displayed his cremation chamber model at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. At the same time, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, fostered the use of cremation in the British Isles. Hazardous health conditions prompted Sir Henry and his colleagues to promote cremation and found the Cremation Society of England in 1874. By 1878, England and Germany were home to the first European crematories in Europe.

In North America, cremation was being experimented with in the early 1800s. It began to become more common practice in 1876, when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania.

Today, the popularity of cremation is continuing to rise,not only has it become an acceptable form of disposition, but also less expensive than traditional ground burials, and the popularity of cremation is only matched by the constantly evolving styles of cremains vessels. In fact, there are so many urn types, that they are often classified by the style and functionality, rather than materials.

Many religions that were previously against cremation have accepted it as a tradition. Cremation can offer the same options for families that traditional burials do, such as viewing of a body or even burial in a ground plot in a cemetery. Whatever the reason, cremation gives us an alternative for the farewell of our dearly departed in a dignified and time honored way.