Cremation is the process wherein dead bodies are burned and broken down to basic chemical compounds which could resemble ashes. In turn, these ashes are placed in a small container (called an urn), which could be then buried or be kept with the deceased person’s family. It has since become one of the popular alternatives to traditional funeral services and burials, though it in itself is not considered to be a burial.
Places where cremation could be done are called crematoriums, though there are places in other parts of the world that burn the deceased’s bodies in funeral pyres built out in the open.
Historians have found evidence of the ritual of cremation as far back as 20,000 years ago. The Mungo Lady, whose partially-cremated remains were found in Mungo Lake in Australia, stands to be one of the oldest recorded instances of cremation to date.
Different civilizations have practiced different funeral and burial customs and not all of them adopted cremation as a means of disposing of their dead. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that the soul’s form was tied to the body’s, and thus never cremated their dead. However, researchers have found that Early Persians and the Phoenicians cremated their dead, and that this practice was also evident during the early Bonze Age.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, burial was more common and cremation was reserved for those in the upper class or the royalty. With the spread of Christianity, cremating a person’s body faded from practice, as its roots of Judaism prohibited it. At this time, entombment was once again the preferred burial practice. This continued throughout the Middle Ages (though some Christians used it as a means to punish the souls of those that were judged as heretics).
As time passed, cremating the remains of the deceased became used in order to prevent the spread of disease. It also became used as a method of disposal in times of war. Nazis disposed of their victims this way, even resorting to mass cremation in order to save themselves the trouble of massive burial graves.
Sir Thomas Browne was one of the first in the modern era to vocally advocate the practice of cremating the deceased’s remains in 1658. He was followed by Sir Henry Thompson (a baronet and a surgeon and physician to Queen Victoria), who became interested when he went to the Vienna Exposition in 1873 and saw the model of a cremating apparatus. He stated that cremating a dead person would greatly reduce the cost of funeral services, prevent premature burial, prevent the propagation of disease, and that the urns where the ashes will be kept will be saved from vandalism. With some other advocates, he formed the Cremation Society of Great Britain. However, cremating a body at this time was still seen as illegal.
It was through a Welsh priest, Willian Price, that the process of legalizing the act of cremating the deceased began. After being caught cremating the remains of his first child, he argued in court that the law did not state that cremation was illegal or legal at all. This led to the Cremation Act 1902, which stated several requirements before a cremation could take place, as well as the only authorized places where it could occur.
The first “official” cremation after the passing of this act was the cremation of the body of Mrs. Jeanette C. Pickersgill in 1885. Mrs. Pickersgill was an Amsterdam-born, English painter well-known in several circles in society. Two more cremations followed in that year, followed by ten in the next year. The practice soon spread to other countries and several other crematoriums were built.
In modern times, a crematorium could be housed within a chapel, funeral home, or operate independently. It’s good to note that cremation of multiple bodies at a time is still illegal in the United States and many other countries. A cremator can only cremate one body at a time. The exceptions that fall apart from this law is if the bodies to be cremated are still-born twins or other multiples or mothers who have died in childbirth with their still-born babies. In these cases, the bodies must be incinerated in the same container.
Modern cremators are now computer controlled, which is deemed safer and easier to use than manually lighting the device. Some will even allow the deceased’s family members to view the cremation taking place inside, mostly for religious reasons (such as in Hinduism and Jainism). The urns where the ashes are kept could be of any design and of any material. Traditional funeral services could also be held after the ashes have been transferred to the urn.