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The History of Cremation

The practice of cremation has been widely used throughout the world and dates as far back as the Mesolithic Period. One of the earliest findings of cremation comes from the remains of a body discovered at Lake Mungo in Australia, which is at least 20,000 years old.

In Europe, signs of cremation permeated many regions until the wake of the Christian movement during the 300’s AD. Ancient Greece and Rome held cremations as a common practice however, cremation virtually disappeared with the coming of Constantine and the domination of Christianity. During the height of the Middle Ages, cremation was not only out of use but strictly illegal and punishable by death.

However, traditional burial practices carried a weight that was difficult for the state and civilization to bear. Land was limited, disease was rampant, and the population was rising. For these reasons, advocates of cremation began to emerge and work to reintegrate the practice. Revival of cremation began in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was not until the late 19th century that the cause began to gain substantial backing. It was also during this time that the first modern crematory was built in the United Sates.

Construction of crematoria began around Europe, and the popularity of cremation and the use of cremation urns steadily increased over the decades of the 20th century. Support for cremation was intensified throughout Europe and the Catholic world when Pope Paul VI officially lifted the cremation ban in 1963.

A similar story exists in Asia. During the 700’s AD, cremation was standard and believed to be a cleansing, releasing practice according to Buddhist belief. However, it was opposed by followers of Confucianism who did not resonate with the custom. As a result, elite members of Japanese society halted cremations and eventually banned them in 1873. Just two years after the ban, a reversal was necessary as population rose and disease befell the Japanese people. Today, Japan’s cremation rate sits at 99.9%, the highest in the world.  

In Central and South America, cremation was regarded in a different light. It wasn’t until 1936 that cremation became legal throughout many Central and South American countries, but legalization did not popularize the practice. Cremation did not begin to catch on until the late 1970s, and did not gain momentum until the 1990’s. The late 20th-century spike in cremation was due to health concerns and population incline.

Cremation has also long been used in India, where their cremation practices are in accordance with the rites of passage depicted in ancient Sanskrit texts dating back to the Iron Age.

Today, India’s cremation rate remains high, while Europe’s cremation rate is substantial and continues to steadily increase. The same holds true for North America and the rest of the world. This practice is a widely accepted funerary custom, and it continues to rise as a solution to an ever growing global population.