Throughout history, methods of disposition of the deceased have shifted through periods of preference. There is evidence of cremation taking place as far back as the Neolithic Era. Decorative urns that date back to the Stone Age were discovered in Western Russia. Cremation has fallen in and out of favor throughout history, with shifts mainly attributing to religious beliefs and societal trends, however, present day cremation practices have come a long way since the Stone Age.
The earliest description of cremation comes from Homer’s account of Patroclus, whose remains were cremated and buried. However, the practice during that time is considered an anomaly, since burial was generally preferred. Nevertheless, cremation did grow in popularity during Homer’s time, especially in the period when The Illiad was written, a book in which there is a perception that the greater the hero, the greater the cremating fire. Ancient Greece and Rome both favored cremation – it was the preferred practice for the upper classes, war heroes and was also used as a way to prevent illness during times of war and epidemic. Over time, as Christianity became the more popular religion throughout Europe, the practice became less and less prevalent until virtually disappearing by the 5th century.
In other civilizations, cremation was and remains desirable. In fact, Hinduism recommends cremation to devout Hindus, which is why cremation in India was first recorded around 1900 B.C. and remained a common practice long after. In addition, Buddhist populations of China began cremating their dead around 1300 A.D.
During the middle ages, cremation became illegal throughout Europe and was only used in cases of punishment by the authorities or as a precaution against the spread of disease during times when large portions of communities had died, such as after battles or during periods of famine.
It wasn’t until 1873, when Professor Brunetti presented the first cremation chamber during the Vienna Exposition, that modern cremation practices became possible. In 1874, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson and his colleagues, founded the Cremation Society of Great Britain. However, the practice was still illegal throughout England and Wales until 1884, when a well-known public agitator, named Dr. William Price, publically announced that he would cremate his son, and was arrested for doing so. The judge on his case ruled that cremation was legal and changed the history of cremation in England and Wales for the foreseeable future.
The first crematory in North America was established in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876. There were health concerns during the time that funeral attendees were contracting illnesses from the decomposing bodies of their loved ones. For many, cremation offered a safer alternative.
Most Christian denominations remained against cremation through the early 1900s. Protestants began accepting the practice, citing that: "God can resurrect a bowl of ashes just as conveniently as he can resurrect a bowl of dust.” It wasn’t until 1963 that Pope Paul VI lifted the ban on cremation and in 1966 he further allowed Catholic priests to officiate over cremation ceremonies.
As embalming became more widely accepted, cremation was no longer the only way to solve health and sanitation issues. Crematories began looking for ways to increase the allure of cremation by adding stained glass windows, marble floors and other décor to their cremation chambers.
In modern times, cremation is practiced across 31 different countries around the world at a wide variance of rates. In Japan, approximately 99% of the deceased are cremated, whereas, in Ghana, the cremation rate is less than 2%. In the United States, over 30% of the deceased are cremated, with the highest rates occurring on the West Coast. Throughout the US, cremation is considered a lower-cost alternative to burial, with many people still holding traditional memorial services before or after disposition.