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Cremation, Urns and Keepsakes: a History

The earliest evidence of cremation dates back 20,000 years to the discovery of the incompletely cremated remains of Mungo Lady, near Lake Mungo in Australia. Since that time as cultures and society evolved, preferences changed regarding the disposal of human remains. From the Cremation Association of North America, the following is a breakdown of cremation practices until modern times:1

  • Archeological evidence shows that cremation as a death ritual had its origins during the Neolithic or Stone Age, circa 3,000 BC, in northern Europe and the Near East.
  • The Bronze Age (2,500 – 1,000 BC) shows cremation being performed by the Celts, in what is now Great Britain and the Iberian Peninsula. During the Bronze Age, the first known cemeteries for cremations were developed in the areas of Hungary and northern Italy.
  • In the Mycenaean Age, (1,600 – 1,100 BC) burial was generally preferred but cremation was encouraged mostly for hygienic reasons. Greece was in a state of almost perpetual war and the numerous slain warriors created the increased need for cremation.
  • During the Roman era, (Early: 600 BC – 100 BC and United Roman Empire: 100 BC - 600 AD) cremation was a common practice particularly among the more honored citizens (e.g., military personnel, the upper class, and imperial family members).
  • Early Christianity discouraged cremation. The two main reasons for this were the influence of Judaism with its opposition to cremation, and the desire to obliterate pagan rituals of fire sacrifice and human sacrifice. Burial became the preferred method of dealing with human remains until the mid 1800’s.
  • The Victorian era ushered in the modern age of cremation, with the idea being reintroduced at the Medical International Conference of Florence in 1870. In the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria’s physician promoted cremation for sanitary reasons to prevent disease within a growing population.
  • The first crematorium in England was built in 1878 and in the United States in 1876.
  • By 1900, 20 crematoria were in operation in the US. By 2009, there were 2,100 registered crematoriums for a growth rate of close to 37 percent.2
Changing Times, Changing Attitudes

As we progress through the modern era, Western society shows ever increasing numbers for cremation as a favored method of death ceremony. The change in attitude towards cremation can be attributed primarily to the following factors:

  • The growing trend toward responsible environmental stewardship and the population overcrowding in older cities and smaller countries are making cremation a more attractive alternative to burial.
  • In today’s society, families are more transient than in the past, making hometown burial or burial in the family plot impractical.
  • Economics are playing a large role in changing attitudes. The cost of cremation is a fraction of the price for funerals and burials, with prices for interment increasing exponentially in crowded urban areas.
  • Increasingly, religious restrictions for cremation are being eased as pressure builds from the other factors listed above.3

Changing Religious Views on Cremation

As noted above, the outlook of organized religion towards cremation is also changing. In the mid 1960’s the Catholic Church recognized the practical aspects of cremation and lifted the ban on its practice. In its 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Church “does not forbid cremation.”4 And Protestant denominations that have traditionally been opposed to cremation, such as the Baptists, are also changing their outlook as costs and practicality play an increasing role in the public’s choice for cremation.

The Influence of Government

As the church is changing with the times, so too are governments. Overcrowding of cemeteries forced Greeks to exhume their loved ones after only three years – to make room for the next coffin.5 And in 2006, the Greek government broke with tradition to allow the majority Orthodox population to perform cremations for the first time.

In China, the government now offers a subsidy of 2,000 Yuan and a free boat trip for sea burials.6

In contemporary Japan, high costs, sanitation, and lack of space have seen a rise in cremation to almost 100 percent. And although burial is still permitted, municipal governments, such as Tokyo and Osaka, have ordinances requiring cremation only. 7

Small land mass, growing populations and shrinking space are causing critical issues for cemeteries in locations from Rio de Janeiro to New York to London and Hong Kong with local governments all trying to come up with solutions to this growing problem.

The Generational Effect

The remaining population from WWII and the baby boomers tend toward making arrangements prior to one’s death.8 Pre-need choices are paid using available funds that cover traditional funeral services, and are especially popular within the WWII population. A shift is being observed with baby boomers. An increasing number are moving toward green burials that are less expensive and can be personalized. Members of Gen X and Gen Y have even less in terms of available funds for services with all the embellishments.


[1] CANA: History of Cremation

[2] Wikipedia: Cremation

[3] North American Cremation Attitudes 

[4] Code of Canon Law

[5] The New York Times: New Greek law permits cremation 

[6] China's Revolution: Burial at Sea 

[7] Japan's favor towards cremation  

[8] Generation Generated Funerals