The History of Cremation in the Western World and the U.S.

Since ancient times, people have been honoring their loved ones through the practice of cremation. While cremation as a method of memorialization has increased in popularity in recent years, cremation has a rich history dating back to as early as the Stone Age. In ancient Greece, cremation began as an act that was associated with celebrating the bravery and valour of heroes who died in war, paying tribute to them with an ending as grandiose to how they had lived their life, serving their land and people. The Romans also honored their military heroes through cremation and the epic and extravagant method of memorialization revealed the status of the decedent. In India, cremation has always been recognized and appreciated as an important practice helping to free the soul on its journey through reincarnation. 

While cremation has been practiced for centuries, the method of memorialization as we know it today did not develop until the late 19th century in Italy. In this article we will take a look at the history of cremation in the western world and North America, and explore how it transformed into the act of cremation we are familiar with today used in modern times.

How Did Modern Cremation As We Know It Today Begin? 

Cremation as we understand of it today started when Professor Brunetti invented the first cremation chamber in Italy in 1873. Prior to the invention of an enclosed chamber in which the deceased would be incinerated using high temperatures of concentrated heat to turn into ashes, people honored their deceased loved ones by burning them on an open flame. Cremation performed in this manner in a cremation chamber was viewed as possibly a healthier method of paying tribute to someone who has passed as compared to traditional burial that was then considered to be potentially hazardous and detrimental to public health.  After Brunetti’s invention, a movement started in Europe and the U.S. to foster interest in cremation as a method of memorialization. This movement led to the creation of the first crematorium built in North America in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876.

A Hygienic Way of Handling Human Remains 

Cremation continued to be the preferred method of memorializing those who passed and handling human remains through the early 1900s. The Cremation Association of America was founded in 1913 to encourage cremation as a modern practice that offered a “safe and hygienic” manner of handling human remains. The association was initially composed of medical professionals and people who were concerned of the potentially damaging effects of traditional methods of burial. Cremation was favored amongst and the upper class through the 1920s. However, once it was revealed that traditional burial practices were not in fact detrimental to public health, they then became the preferred method of memorialization.

Personalizing the Memorialization of Loved Ones  

Throughout the decades, the Cremation Association of America shifted its focus from promoting cremation for its health benefits to presenting it as a method that offered families an opportunity to memorialize their loved ones in a personal and special way. In 1975, the association became known as the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). Around that time, cremation had grown significantly in popularity and according to sources, 150,000 cremations were conducted per year across hundreds of crematoriums throughout North America. 

Modern Cremation and Its Continued Growth in Popularity

Cremation as a method of memorialization continued to increase in popularity through the early 1980s. Cremation was appreciated due to the fact that it offered families more options for personalizing how they memorialized their loved ones, providing them with choices such as keeping their loved one’s remains in an urn in their home, sharing tashes amongst family members and/ or scattering remains in sentimental locations.Beyond these factors, cremation has continued to be recognized as a popular way of paying tribute to loved ones, offering a host of other benefits such as a more economical and eco-friendly choice over traditional burial methods. By 2009, there were 2,100 crematoriums in the U.S. and that year alone, over 9,000 cremations were conducted, marking a significant growth since the late 1900s. With this continued growth and larger interest in protecting and preserving the environment, that also offers a more personal and innovative approach to honoring loved ones, it seems that cremation will only continue to rise in popularity in years to come.

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