The term cremation refers to the combustion process which oxidizes and vaporizes cadavers into a basic chemical compound, including gasses, mineral fragments and ash. Mineral fragments may still have the look of dry bone. As an alternative to burring a body in a casket or coffin, cremation is often a service opted for as a funeral or post funeral process.
The final remains after cremation, sometimes referred to as simply ashes or ‘cremains’ pose no health risks, and can be placed at memorial sites, buried, or placed in cemeteries. Other options include being kept in possession of relatives, or dispersed in various ways, often according to the persons requests upon death. Cremation acts as an alternative method to burial as a way to dispose of the body.
Depending on the family, some prefer to have a service without the persons body being there, while others wait until after the service to have their loved one cremated (post-funeral). The act of cremation in many countries takes place within a crematorium. However, there are countries such as Nepal and India that have other preferred methods, including open-air cremation.
According to archaeological records, the act of cremation can be dated back far as 20,000 years after remains were discovered of a partial cremation at Lake Mungo, Australia. They named the find ‘Mungo Lady’.
Throughout history, disposal preferences have gone through periods with death rituals that emphasize a single disposal method, such as cremation, inhumation (burial) or exposure.
Within Europe and the Middle East, both cremation and burials are on archaeological records during the Neolithic era. Individual cultural groups had their own prohibitions and preferences. For example, soul theology was developed by ancient Egyptians which required intricate transmigration and prohibited cremations. This method was adopted widely by Semitic people as well.
According to Herodotus, Babylonians would embalm the dead. Cremation was practiced by Persians early, but eventually became prohibited in the Zoroastrian period Additionally, burial and cremation were both practiced by Phoenicians.
The Greeks also practiced inhumation (burial) between 3000 BCE (Cycladic civilization) and 1200-1100 BCE (Sub-Mycenaean era). The act of cremation did not appear until the 12th century BCE, which constituted a new burial practice, possibly an influence that originated from Anatolia.
The method of burial and cremation continued to be used until the Christian era, when the act of burial once again was the only method accepted. The Romans also practiced both methods and commonly associated cremation with that of military honor.
Cremation has trace evidence in Europe dating back to 2000 BC (early Bronze Age) along the middle Danube and Pannonian Plain. Cremation had become a custom throughout the era, and around 1300 BC introduce Urnfield culture. During the Iron Age, burial was again the more common method used, while cremation was used in other areas, such as the Villanovan culture. For instance, the burial of Patroclus, according to Homer, was described as a cremation using subsequent burial within tumulus, closely related to that of Urnfield burials and officially qualified this as the earliest known description for cremation. Although, it is possible that it is an anachronism, because in the Mycenaean period, the preferred method was burial. This means Homer could have reflected on cremations more common usage during the time Iliad had been wrote, which occurred centuries later.
Different cultures and religions have criticized burial rites as a form of aspersion, which associates the act of cremation with human sacrifice or fire sacrifices. For example, Jainism and Hinduism are well-known for conducting cremations, but also for prescribing them. The first cremations within India are thought to occur during the Cemetery H culture in 1900 BCE, also thought to be the more formative stages of the Vedic civilization.
Although the act of cremation continued to be common, it was not a universally adopted method for disposal of the dead body within ancient Rome and ancient Greece. In Rome, according to Cicero, burial had been the preferred method as it was thought to be more of an archaic rite, with cremation typically being reserved for the most honored citizens, especially those of imperial families and upper classes.
With the rise of Christianity, cremation came to an end from the influences of its origins in Judaism which beliefs in the body’s resurrection as with the burial of Christ. Based on the appearance of cemeteries, anthropologists have successfully traced advances in Christianity through Europe. Practice of cremation was slowly eliminated in Europe during the 5th century as Christianity spread.
Although a usual method in Roman Britain, cremation ended in the 4th century. However, cremation was again used during the 5th-6th century with the migration era. In addition to the human bodies, animals would occasionally be added on the pyre, while the dead was dressed within ornaments and costumes for the cremation process. This was a widespread custom for Germanic people in northern continental areas, where the Anglo-Saxon migrants are believed to derive from in the same period. It was common for ashes at this time to be deposited within vessels of bronze or clay to conduct the ‘urn cemetery’. As Anglo-Saxon seen the conversion to Christianity, the custom again ended. During the 7th century, burial again became the general method for Christians in the Early English era.
Cremation was not permitted by law throughout Europe during this period. If combining cremation with Heathen rites, it was an act punishable by death. On occasion, cremation would be used for punishment of Protestant heretics by Catholic authorities, including burning at the stake. For instance, John Wycliff’s body had been exhumed many years after he died, burning to ash, while some of his ash remains were scattered into a river. This was explicitly done due to the posthumous punishment of denial for the Roman Catholic doctrine for transubstantiation.