Douglas J Davies. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
Historically, cremation has been practiced from as early as the Neolithic period. Later, it was well-known in classical Greek society, sometimes occurring alongside burial when it was, perhaps, restricted to individuals of high social status. The Romans practiced cremation as their major funeral rite until the 2nd century A.D. when they switched to burial in a remarkable change of cultural practice that has not been fully explained and was unlikely to be due entirely to the rise of Christianity. In ancient China, parts of Southeast Asia, India, and among some North and South American indigenous groups, cremation was used as a normal mode of funerary rite. One of the most remarkable cultural changes in Europe in the 20th century was the rise of cremation over burial as the central means of disposing of the dead. After practically 2,000 years of Christian-influenced burial, the Protestant churches led the field in accepting cremation as an authentic form of funeral (Jupp 1990). Catholicism followed later in the century (McDonald 1966), whereas in North America, it took until the beginning of the 21st century before cremation even began to make major inroads into the traditional domain of death rites (Rutherford 1992; Prothero 2001). Australia tended to follow the British pattern as far as those of European immigrant backgrounds were concerned (Nicol 1994). In terms of the major religious traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism have long used cremation, whereas Orthodox Judaism and Islam continue, largely, to reject it. Within Christianity, Protestant Lutheranism and Anglicanism accepted cremation from early in the 20th century, practically half a century before Catholicism, but Greek Orthodoxy continues to forbid the practice.
The modern development of cremation did not come about unassisted. A curious book titled Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, by Sir Thomas Browne, was published in England in 1658 (Browne  1958) and was a reflection on cremation in the light of archaeological findings related to cremation. In the late 18th century, the French Revolution saw cremation as a form of funeral that avoided Christian tradition, but little happened, in practice, until the 1860s and 1870s. Exhibitions in Paris (1867) presented a gas-burning system by Siemens, and in Vienna (1873), a cremation scheme by the Italian Brunetti. The first European Congress of Cremation took place in Dresden in 1876. The Congress of Hygiene in Turin (1880), for example, inspired Alfred Koeschin-Schwarz and Georges Saloman to form a cremation society in France. A major theme of these events was cremation as a scientifically based means of public health in disposing of the dead. Notable individuals supporting cremation included Professor Ferdinando Coletti (1819-1881) and Dr. Gaetano Pini (1846-1887) in Italy, Anton Widlar (1817-1917) in Vienna, and Sir Henry Thompson (1820-1904), surgeon to Queen Victoria.
In many countries in the late 19th century, individuals and groups became interested in this form of disposal whether influenced primarily by matters of public health or from ideological commitments in opposition to the dominance of Christian churches over funerary rites and sometimes over cultural life in general (Leaney 1989). Very often, informal groups led to the establishment of cremation societies or associations that sought a legal status for cremation even before it was practiced in their countries. Such societies often published a journal or newsletter that remains of historical interest. These societies were founded, for example, in Great Britain (1874), Holland (1874), Austria-Hungary (1874), Denmark (1881), Sweden (1882), Belgium (1882), Finland (1889), Norway (1889), Australia (1890), Belgium (1906), Czech Republic (1909), Switzerland (1913), and France (1924). In most of these cases, attention was drawn not only to the necessity of establishing the legality of cremation but also to the potential problem of destroying bodies and, with them, the evidence of any foul play associated with death. Each country possessed its own distinctive constraints and motivations, whether having strong differences of opinion between churches, as with Lutheranism and Orthodoxy in Finland that went on to influence subsequent practice (Lahtinen 1989), or strong ideologically motivated groups as in the Netherlands (Cappers 1999).
Cremation and Society
One reason cremation was fostered throughout Europe and America in the 19th century was a concern for public welfare and hygiene. Because large cities such as London possessed overfull church graveyards that often caused offense through decaying bodies and their products, cremation was seen as a positive benefit to public health. The same industrial revolution that had packed towns with workers and their increasingly over-filled graveyards with their dead—not least the masses dying of cholera epidemics—was the same movement that made engineering an increased fact of social life, making it perfectly plausible to employ mechanical techniques for coping with corpses. William Eassie (1832-1888) was one British engineer who favored such hygienic social reform, and his book The Cremation of the Dead (1875) did much to advocate the practice. The fostering of cremation in most countries in the 19th century involved just such individuals with distinctive commitments and interests and sometimes, as with the Welshman, Dr. William Price, also a degree of idiosyncrasy. Price, a medical doctor, freethinker, folklorist, and romantic at large, was arrested in 1884 for cremating his infant son on a hillside. The legal decision that rendered him innocent also deemed cremation not to be illegal as long as it caused no public offense. The United States was also not without colorful characters who, in 1876, introduced its first cremation, of one Baron De Palm. This followed an elaborate funerary rite conducted at a Masonic Temple and managed by the new Theosophical Society and its protagonist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, himself once a Spiritualist. Although these British and American episodes dwell on dramatic forms adopted by eccentric and mildly charismatic figures, the overall development of cremation in the modern world, especially over the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, was pursued by civic authorities, often responding to organized cremation associations seeking legality for the practice deemed to be hygienic and humanitarian. This was exemplified, for example, by another medical man, the British surgeon Sir Henry Thompson, mentioned above. Having been impressed by models of cremators at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873, he helped found the Cremation Society of England in 1874 and was its president for some 30 years. His article on the “Treatment of the Body after Death” (Thompson 1874) was to be influential on thinking at large in favoring cremation. His views on the benefits and advantages of cremation over burial were paralleled in numerous European countries, in Australia, and in America, where the first fully public crematorium—or crematory as is the preferred American word—was opened in 1884. In America, the practice did not become even relatively popular until the close of the 20th century. Issues of local identity, of the association of ethnic and immigrant ancestors with burial as well as of strong Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish opposition, not to mention the many small towns of America, combined to restrain cremation’s appeal. In addition to that, some saw an element of the denial of death incorporated into one stream of the “American way of death” that fostered the cosmetic decoration of corpses and the provision of elaborate caskets. For some, it is easier to cope with death if one can continue to imagine the deceased as lying peacefully in his or her grave; cremation was seen as compromising this vision.
Still, for some in America, and many in Europe in the mid- and later 20th century, the apparent speed and efficiency of dealing with corpses was impressive and contrasted with the potential evils of slow decay. From the 19th century, the industrial revolution had, on numerous fronts, influenced many people’s way of life. The possibility of dealing with corpses through efficient cremation engineering was but one more development in the use of machines in society. The rise in social significance of the medical and scientific communities was also important in fostering cremation, paralleling as it did an increased commitment to town planning and the management of social welfare.
By the beginning of the 21st century, however, factors influencing public health had begun to change and to take on the wider agenda of the ecological well-being of planet Earth itself. With that in mind, cremation became problematic because its combustion processes involved the production of some gases deemed damaging to the environment. The presence of mercury in the tooth fillings of generations of people in the mid- and late 20th century serves as but one example of substances producing dangerous gases. Even the paint and varnish on coffins, along with the unintended consequence of objects placed in the coffin with the dead, could serve deleterious ends. This resulted in the introduction of increasingly stringent laws governing the output of gases from cremator chimneys and necessitated very high expenditure on systems to reduce the flow of such elements. Ironically, that which had been viewed as of positive health value in the late 19th century came to be negatively evaluated by the 21st.
One psychological element related to the preference for cremation is the fear of being buried alive. Numerous cases are known, not least in the 19th century, of people being counted as dead and then regaining normal consciousness before being buried. Cremation counters this fear in that, even if a body was not dead, the individual would die in the cremation and would not suffer the torment of a relatively slow death in the grave. This fear prompted some to favor cremation both in continental Europe and in the United States (Bondeson 2001:184, 262). Some current research shows that cremation does not engender as many anxieties as does burial (Davies and Shaw 1995:26).
Styles of Modern Cremation
The modern crematorium with an enclosed cremator introduced a quite new form of building into world architecture and into the life experience of increasing numbers of people (Davies 1996). In these crematoria, practices vary a great deal in different societies, as selected examples show. Korea’s great crematorium at Seoul possesses a series of large halls in which people from different religious traditions may perform their distinctive rites prior to the incineration of the body. During cremation, family members may engage in additional rites at shrines placed before—although separated from—each cremator. These numerous shrines are arranged in a long line along an otherwise shared and open area so that a dozen or more families may, at practically the same time, be engaged in their funerary rites. This gives a sense of the communality of grief, despite its individual family focus. The cremated remains may be placed in special buildings with individual box compartments, with family access for days of further commemorative rites.
By complete contrast, there are some cremation facilities in the United States where the coffin is cremated in buildings quite devoid of any public access and with no family ceremony at all. This is likely to take place after formal rites in churches or funeral homes. Similar arrangements are found in some European contexts, such as Budapest. Even in countries such as Sweden, where crematoria have excellent facilities for religious services and are often used for this purpose, many families prefer to hold a funeral service at their local parish church before sending the coffin to the crematorium to be cremated at some opportune time. In such contexts, the day of the funeral rite may be quite separated from the day of the cremation itself. This differs markedly, for example, from some French contexts where the family may travel some distance to a crematorium for a religious or secular rite and then wait until the body is cremated before taking the remains away with them for interment at their local village cemetery.
Some European crematoria, as with Stockholm’s magnificent building designed by Asplund, mirror aspects of church architecture while at the same time emphasizing their distinctive purposes. Several Dutch crematoria reflect strong contemporary themes and contain generic symbols of life, death, and enduring memory rather than specifically Christian forms. The 19th-century Italian crematorium at Turin, by contrast, reflects strong Masonic influence, and its main ceremonies room resembles a temple of antiquity more than a church. The door through which the coffin passes is set within a large, pyramidlike, wall guarded by nonreligious statues. By complete contrast, the crematorium at Debrecen in the Protestant area of Northeast Hungary is built in a local arts-and-craft style but according to Protestant Reformed ideals, with the coffin placed on a descending lift immediately before a large pulpit from which the word of God may be preached. As with many crematoria in Eastern Europe, large flame holders stand around the coffin as they also do at some burials. One of the major problems identified with British crematoria, especially from the 1960s, was that they had to cope with so many funerals that the bereaved felt a sense of being processed; the metaphor of the “conveyor-belt” has often been invoked to describe this, even though very few crematoria ever actually used such a mechanism for removing the coffin from the ceremonies room (Davies 1995:20-23).
The prime product of cremation is ashes or cremated remains. In the United States, the phrase “cremated remains” has come to be abbreviated in the neologism “cremains.” Approximately 8 pounds of ash results from the cremation of a human body. After cremation, the body is reduced to a gray-white ash and several fragments of the larger bones and skull. These are usually further fragmented by removing the remains from the main cremator and placing them in a grinding machine—often called a cremulator—rendering everything to finer ash. These remains are then placed in some sort of container and can be returned to the family or to the official who will deposit them by burial or scattering.
The very existence of such cremated remains has opened opportunities that were not possible with the actual corpse. Ashes are very portable and are, for example, cheaper to send from one country to another. Even so, it took approximately a century before the possibility of using them in a variety of ways that diverged from traditional burial was fully acknowledged. This demonstrates something of the traditional power of death rites within human society and reflects the way in which the religious control over human remains has altered (Bowker 1973: 80-85). With the rise of cremation came the possibility that families might take and use remains quite apart from any formal religious ritual. In Britain, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century, although the great majority of cremation services are conducted by ministers of religion, most subsequent rites with the remains fall outside clerical control. In that sense, the churches become less influential over the personal thoughts and acts of individuals. This could be regarded as a concrete example of secularization as the process whereby religious institutions lose influence over public rites.
In the later 20th century, cremation also increasingly came to be used for the disposal of the bodies of pet animals. Numerous pet crematoria, quite distinct from those for human beings, were established in many parts of Britain, for example, and in Japan, there is even a mobile service available. Once more, cremated remains came into their own as a symbolic medium that could be pressed in various forms of ritual use and could even be placed alongside the cremated remains of their owners who could thus achieve a degree of desired togetherness with their pet that death might, otherwise, be thought to thwart.
Columbaria and Memorials
One mode of dealing with ashes pursued in the early and mid-20th century was the columbarium. Taken from the Latin word for dovecote—a structure with many niches—the columbarium was used in classical antiquity, often subterraneously, and was reappropriated to describe a building with many shelves for containers holding cremated remains. The classical crematorium of Golders Green in London, constructed in the 1920s, possesses a fine example with hundreds of urns in many different designs, made from many substances—metal, wood, or ceramic—and holding the remains of very many famous and internationally renowned politicians, artists, musicians, and others. Although some columbaria were designed in the later 20th century, sometimes in the crypts of major churches, they tended to be superseded by specially constructed niche walls in which remains could be deposited in a relatively uniform fashion.
Memorials of and for the dead became increasingly common from the 17th century and reached something of a zenith in the 19th century. Cremated remains tended not to attract the same sort of veneration as buried bodies. Although numerous commercial concerns encourage physical memorials of the dead, whether as corpses or cremated remains, the increasingly personalized rites used in placing remains in growing numbers shows that individual memory is taking over from public memorials as the means of recalling the dead. Although this may give a much greater sense of immediate significance to bereaved kin, it leaves little or nothing for social recognition and for future historians or archaeologists. Among exceptions are the public memorials in, for example, London’s Westminster Abbey, which, since 1908, required the cremation of any figure whose remains are to be placed in that national site of memory: the only exception being that of the Unknown Warrior of 1920.
Although most countries either use simple storage facilities or else bury or disperse cremated remains on lawn or wooded areas, some other innovations have also occurred. For example, in Budapest’s major cemetery a unique system of fountain dispersal of cremated remains has been devised. The ashes are placed in a metal urn constructed with a series of holes, and this, in turn, is attached to a stone plinth that includes a mechanism to spin the metal container. At an appropriate point in any religious or secular service, the mechanism can be activated to spin the container and disperse the ashes by centrifugal force. At the same time, a circle of water jets surrounding the plinth sprays it with the effect of catching up the cremated remains in a cloudlike effect. The water plus remains then drain into the surrounding ground, which has been specially excavated and prepared with soak-away vents. The overall effect of this innovation sets the remains into a natural environment of water and earth and displays a marked sense of ceremonial creativity.
How may these varying forms of cremation be interpreted? One of the most valuable suggestions came from the anthropologist Robert Hertz and his “double-burial” theory of coping with the dead (Hertz [1905-06] 1960; Parkin 1996:87-113). Working at the beginning of the 20th century, long before cremation had become common in Europe, he based his material on cultural practices of Southeast Asia, showing how the dead were often dealt with in a dual-phase process. The first he described as the “wet” stage and the second as the “dry” stage of a process that involved both the dead and the living. As far as the dead were concerned, the wet phase covered the period of decomposition; this could be achieved by burying the body, by placing it in a large pot from which liquors could be drawn off to aid the drying process, or by cremation. Once completed, the dry bones or remains could be taken and, for example, installed in an ancestor house. This twofold process achieved the prime purpose of transforming the identity of the dead—as when relocating it among the ancestors—and, as such, was a form of rite of passage. The once-living individual had been removed from the realm of everyday life and had undergone a period of transformation before being given a new identity through incorporation into the world of the ancestors. This process also affected the living: They could now relate to their former kin in new ways, as ancestor rather than father, for example. But the period of time taken for the body to decay and be transformed into an ancestor was also a time in which the psychological life of the survivors could undergo its own transformation, adapting to grief and to ordinary life without the dead person.
Hertz applied this twofold approach of “double-burial” to cremation by identifying the “wet” phase as very rapid, with the body undergoing a kind of artificial decay through burning being rendered into its “dry” components within hours or a day. Hertz emphasized that cremation in and of itself is seldom sufficient for human cultures, for it does not achieve the final purpose of funeral rites, that of giving a new status to the dead. Accordingly, most societies that have practiced cremation engage in a second and final rite by taking the cremated remains and doing something definite with them. Accordingly, the principle of “double-burial,” the twofold process of transforming the identity of the dead by taking them from the realm of the living and giving them a distinctive identity, was as applicable to cremation rites as to burial rites. In some contemporary societies in Southeast Asia, for example, some cremated remains are placed into special urns, often in a rite performed by members of the family using special chopsticks.
Although Hertz did not discuss modern cremation, his theory begs application to it since he was so convinced that cremation demanded this twofold ritual form. Modern cremation emerged in the late 19th century and rose to dominance in the mid- to later 20th century. In its earliest period, cremated remains were buried in graves in much the same way that actual corpses might be buried. In one sense, this met Hertz’s argument for a double rite for cremation, but in a way that demands one serious qualification, at least in the case of a formal Christian framing of these rites.
In traditional Christian terms, the burial of the corpse was the prime funerary rite; there was no sequel to be conducted by human hands. In practice, bones were often removed from graves and placed in ossuaries or crypts so that the grave could be reused. In Greece, Orthodox Christianity might even use limited rites in association with such removal, but ultimately, the destiny of the dead lay in the hands of God. For the Christian tradition at large, and especially for the Greek Orthodox, the doctrine of the resurrection is of great significance in anticipating this future time when God, at the last day, would cause all to be resurrected. What had been the earthly body would be transformed into a spiritual body, be judged, and await its eternal destiny. In one sense, it is possible to interpret this overall scheme through Hertz’s twofold approach of ritual with burial at human hands constituting the first stage and resurrection at the hands of God as the second. The first removes a person from his or her ordinary identity in this world, and the second invests the person with his or her eternal identity. Christian practice and theology simply separated these two events by a considerable distance. With the advent of cremation, little changed except that the body was cremated prior to the remains being buried “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”
When traditional religious belief ceases to exert a dominant effect over the population at large, however, this pattern need not be retained. In Great Britain, for example, from the mid-1970s it became increasingly common for families to take cremated remains away from crematoria where it had become traditional for them to be buried or scattered on memorial lawns; instead of burying remains in graveyards, people engaged in a variety of practices, placing remains in locations of personal significance and memory. Remains might go into the family’s garden or be placed in some natural spot of family or personal reminiscence, perhaps in association with previous hobbies, interests, or holidays. This innovation slowly developed in other European countries as local laws permitted.
One way of interpreting the difference between the traditional Christian burial of remains and their location in sites of personal memory is through an idea of identity fulfillment. Traditional Christianity saw the ultimate fulfillment of personal identity lying in the eternal future when sin and death were overcome and the faithful flourished in the experience of the divine presence. In theological terms, this can be described as the eschatological fulfillment of identity and can be contrasted with the retrospective fulfillment of identity implicated in the private placing of cremated remains in sites of individual significance. The invention of tradition involved in the private placing of remains expresses something of postmodern secular society in which personal choice predominates over received tradition.
Ancient and Modern Religions
Hinduism developed one of the most extensive of all theories of human destiny involving cremation. As Jonathan Parry’s (1994) detailed study showed, the traditional rite of cremation on open funeral pyres achieved two goals: It freed the spirit and transformed the human body. The power of the Hindu scheme of cremation becomes apparent when set within the wider interpretation of human life, beginning with the belief that the human body is produced through the combined blood of the mother and semen of the father. The embryo grows and is, symbolically speaking, “cooked” or matured in the womb through the “heat” provided through the mother’s blood. Just as the body and the spirit come together in this heated womb—metaphorically understood—so it is taken apart through the literal heat of the funeral pyre. In traditional terms, at a critical moment in the cremation process, the eldest son cracked the skull of the honored parent, allowing the spirit to pass on in a path of transmigration when it might well be reincarnated in another body. The corpse itself is rendered partly into ash that is placed in the sacred river Ganges, or in some other symbolic river, and partly into smoke that rises into the air only to return as rain, which, in its turn, fertilizes the ground, providing food for future parental generations to use. In terms of religious ideology, the act of cremation is also an act of sacrifice; it is the last sacrifice that the deceased person makes to the gods. An individual should prepare for his or her death by concentrating on the name of the deity, fasting, and drinking Ganges water. The way the pyre is prepared and lit is, itself, a mirroring of the offering of sacrifice. Together, this overall view of birth, death, and rebirth; of the integration and disintegration of the body into its constituent parts; and of the central place of the spirit shows that cremation is no simple act of burning the body but is an integral part of a theory of humanity, deity, and universe.
One element of traditional Hindu cremation that has caused a considerable degree of political and moral debate is that of sati, the practice in which a widow is cremated on the funeral pyre of her husband, sometimes called concremation (Anand 1989; Narasimkahan 1990). This practice, now strictly outlawed, depended on the interpretation of a verse in the Hindu scriptures describing how a woman lay on her husband’s pyre before leaving it to marry his brother. Some interpreted the verse as a justification of concremation and others as an emphasis on remarriage within the family group. In practice, some sites of sati cremations became influential as places of minor pilgrimage, especially for women who were barren. This is one clear example of the often-found link between death and life, here symbolized in terms of the potential fertility of childless parents.
Buddhism widely practiced cremation, not least because the Buddha was, himself, cremated. An important feature of his, and of subsequent cremations, is that the body was not entirely consumed. Parts of bones remained and became relics, many of which were buried with special mound monuments or stupas raised above them: These often became the object of pilgrimage and devotion. This is one special form of secondary burial, and many others are also employed in Buddhist societies, as is, for example, the use of remains of important holy people, which may serve as protective or auspicious objects for the living.
The ancient Zoroastrian religion, also known in its Indian form as the Parsee faith, traditionally exposed bodies for devouring by animals, but it, too, has adopted cremation for devotees in countries and contexts where such a practice is impossible. Its traditional belief sought to avoid contaminating the basic elements of earth and fire by the corrupt corpse, and this has been achieved by seeking to use modern electric cremators where, in a sense, the body does not, in the first instance, come into contact with flame but only with hot surfaces that trigger combustion.
In classical antiquity, both Greece and Rome employed cremation. At one level, this coped with those killed in battle and prevented their bodies being desecrated by the enemy; at another it enabled some Roman Emperors to pass through death into the status of the gods. Being cremated on extensive pyres reaching into the sky from the top of which an eagle was released provided a strong visual symbol of the emperor’s soul moving into the heavens as part of the process of apotheosis, of becoming divine. When the Emperor Constantine died in A.D. 337, he, by contrast, was buried with formal Christian rites as, already, Europe was beginning its move toward burial.
In quite a different form of traditional culture, it has been known for cremated remains to be ingested by surviving kin as a means of maintaining a degree of relationship with their dead. The Yanomamo Indians of South America, for example, were known to incorporate remains into a form of soup (Chagnon 1968:50). In Europe, by sharp contrast, cremated remains have been turned into items of personal jewelry as a 20th-century version of the 19th-century use of memento mori—reminders of death and of the dead—in the form of lockets of hair of the dead or even of death masks. Cultural differences can be quite marked; for example, having cremated remains as mementos or keepsakes is perfectly acceptable in Holland but not in Great Britain.
Cremation, Politics, and Religion
Cremation has been one form of disposal of the dead that has served powerful political ends when strongly advocated by political regimes, as with the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century. That particular Communist form of social organization sought to replace the extremely powerful Russian Orthodox tradition of burial with cremation and also did so in other countries, such as Hungary with its Catholic tradition of burial. By making cremation cheap and burial costly, an economic pressure encouraged cremation.
Earlier, in the mid- and late 19th century, numerous groups of freethinkers also encouraged cremation over burial, sometimes as a definite statement of opposition to formal religion. This was the case, for example, in Italy, where the Freemasons advocated cremation provision. This was one reason that the Catholic Church set its face so adamantly against cremation, with Pope Leo XIII announcing in 1886 that cremation was inconsistent with Catholic practice. The ideological element and antagonism between the Catholic Church and Masons and other freethinkers in this attitude cannot be underestimated; it was more important than any explicit theological objection to what happened to the body, even though the Church’s symbolism revolved around the burial and resurrection of Christ and of believers. Only in 1963 did the Catholic Church remove ecclesiastical penalties from cremation, and slowly, cremation became acceptable, although many traditional Catholics continued to favor burial. In Great Britain, Freemasonry had not set itself against Christianity, and cremation did not come to serve as a focal point of antagonism. Indeed, although some Anglican bishops did object to cremation in the 19th century, by the early decades of the 20th, and especially after World War I, the Church of England accepted the practice. This English experience influenced Catholic thought and probably helped alter Rome’s attitude toward cremation.
One inescapable aspect of the politics of cremation is that of the Nazi use of cremation for the destruction of millions of Jews and others in the concentration camps of World War II. This particular episode reversed what had normally been seen as a reverent action, respecting the dignity of a human body. It turned cremation into an industrial-level incineration process of destroying bodies and, possibly, acting as a slight restraint on the development of cremation in Germany, at least for a brief period.
Christian Theology and Cremation
Hinduism, as we saw, possesses a clear theology-mythology of cremation: It is a practice that expresses a belief. Christian theology had, and in some places still possesses, quite a different problem in its theology of death because its rites were entirely grounded in burial. This is consonant with the centrality in Christian thought and belief of Jesus as the Savior of humanity. The Christian creeds speak of Jesus as being crucified, dead, and buried and on the third day being raised again to life. On that model, Christian believers have also been buried “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” Christians have often spoken of the dead “resting in peace” until the resurrection. In most Western contexts of Christian theology, which have been especially important in spreading the Christian faith, Christ’s “burial” has been interpreted and depicted in art in terms of inhumation—being buried in soil—with a strong emphasis on the grave. It was traditionally believed that on the last day, by a divine miracle, the dead would rise again. In terms of popular imagination, a strong link was drawn between the corpse in the grave and the body that would be transformed into a “spiritual body.”
When cremation was accepted by Christian churches in the 20th century, minimal change was introduced into funeral ritual; although reference might be made to the body’s being committed to the flames or “for cremation,” the prime emphasis still lay in burial-resurrection theology. Accordingly, the ashes would be buried in much the same way as would an actual body. Yet this did not entirely satisfy the change in custom. Even by the beginning of the 21st century, very little had been done to develop a Christian theology of cremation. Those who do believe in life after death tend to place strong emphasis on the idea of the soul as something that passes on when it leaves the body. Many theologians, especially Protestants, prefer to think in terms of resurrection of the body and not in terms of an immortal soul, for that correlates more directly with belief in Jesus being resurrected and not some kind of immortal spiritual presence. Even so, it is likely that some Christian churches will develop elements of a theology of cremation, making something of biblical ideas of fire as a refining power or of the creative power of the divine spirit (Davies 1997). In societies that become increasingly “worldly” in value orientation, it is likely that people will deploy their own thoughts when choosing cremation and things to say and do at cremations. In general terms, the emphasis will probably fall on fire as consuming the earthly remains of people whose real identity continues in the lives of those surviving them. For religious believers, the fire simply removes the shell of the body leaving the spirit free for its journey of destiny. Despite the Catholic theological tradition that places a much greater emphasis on the soul and its journey toward God than do Protestants, it nevertheless also puts considerable stress on the body and its need of a transformation on the last day when it unites with the soul to form a new and enlarged identity. Ultimately, cremation is not viewed as any kind of hindrance to this taking place, on the basis that the resurrection will be as great an act as was the original creation itself.
Cremation Present and Future
Apart from its long-standing heartland of India, and in some East Asian contexts, such as Japan (whose cremation rate in 1999 was 98% of the population), modern cremation, after its development in the later 19th century, established itself across the world only in the mid-20th century. In the broadest of terms, it is possible to associate this growth with countries possessing a strong Protestant culture history alongside a strong secular tendency or with Communism as the following picture reveals for the year 1999. In Europe, for example, the strong Catholic tradition resulted in these percentages of cremation in the populations of the following countries, all for 1999: Italy (4%), Ireland (5%), Spain (13%), Portugal (14%), and France (16%). The Protestant heritage of Sweden (68%), Switzerland (68%), and Great Britain (70%) is also evident in their much higher rates, as is the much more mixed Protestant and Catholic background of the Netherlands (48%), Germany (39%), and Hungary (29%). Australia (54%) follows the Protestant secular European model. These and similar statistics are regularly presented in Pharos, the journal of the Cremation Society of Great Britain.
China presents a distinctive case. Although cremation occurred in China’s ancient past, is known to have existed over 8,000 years ago, and was common in the dynasties of approximately A.D. 1000, burial subsequently became the dominant mode of disposal until the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. There followed a major program of crematorium building, along with a clear attempt to change public practice from burial to cremation. The fact that by A.D. 2000, it had attained a cremation rate of approximately 42% reflects the degree of success achieved. Something similar took place under Communist policy in the U.S.S.R., still evident in the Russian cities of Moscow (45%) and St. Petersburg (50%), despite the influence of the Orthodox Church with its favoring of burial and its post-Soviet resurgence. The North American context presents two rather different pictures, with Canada’s 42% being much higher than the U.S. rate of 25% for the year 1999. Numerous additional factors influence these differences as, for example, the presence of large Jewish populations, which generally avoid cremation, and the existence of numerous small rural towns, which have often supported burial in local cemeteries that express something of regional identity. Both South American and African countries have extremely low rates of cremation, as reflected in Brazil’s (4%) and Ghana’s (2%). African Christianity has, generally, adhered firmly to burial, as did, for example, the emergent Christian groups in Nepal in the later 20th century.
Despite these broad trends, there remain some conservative Protestant groups that avoid cremation because of their stress on the doctrine of a bodily resurrection. This is also the case, for example, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—which encourages burial wherever possible, unless it contradicts local custom. Similarly, Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims avoid cremation because of their commitment to resurrection beliefs. Orthodox Jews, similarly, avoid cremation, given the strength of their commitment to burial. With some Jewish groups, there is also the memory of cremation’s devastation in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. Here, fire comes to be interpreted in a negative fashion when, ironically, only a little earlier, in 1937, the British anthropologist A. M. Hocart’s (1973) essay “Baptism by Fire” could easily refer to cremation as a “process of life-giving” (p. 51). Still, local factors often remain of real significance as far as cremation rates are concerned. The Mormon-influenced state of Utah in the United States, for example, showed a cremation rate of 19% in 1999, compared with Florida’s 46%, related to retirement and social mobility, and a U.S. average of 25%. The Cremation Association of North America has projected a cremation rate of some 50% by the year 2021 but predicts that an ultimate ceiling of 65% is likely in the future (Pharos International 2001). This is related to factors of economics, with cremation being generally cheaper than burial; to ecology and land use; and to a sense of emotional ease.
Whether cremation will assume dominance where burial is still preferred is debatable, and even where it is now dominant, changes in concern over ecology may yet lead to new forms of human coping with corpses and redirecting the identity of the dead and the grief of the living. It is likely that cremation rates in European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France will increase from their relatively low levels at the beginning of the 21st century and that similar changes will occur in the United States. In Britain and parts of Scandinavia, by contrast, it may well be that cremation has peaked at around the 65% to 70% level and will either plateau out or recede as ecological concerns, coupled with an ever-growing sense of the personalized wishes of the dead, lead to interment in natural contexts of woodlands.