THE HISTORY OF CREMATION

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Whether you’re planning for the future or approaching retirement age, it’s a wise move to seek advice regarding financial options. But what about making firm decisions regarding senior care and funeral arrangements? Frankly, most are uncomfortable discussing these topics openly and prefer to delay any conversation until the time comes. Yet, finalizing a funeral plan prior to death lovingly frees surviving family members from the confusion and stress of planning a funeral. It’s easy to get the necessary information from a funeral home or from the internet. The Conversation Project ( http://theconversationproject.org ) is one of many sites designed to generate “the discussion”.

Cremation is one option that will certainly enter the dialog. To make an informed decision it’s important to know something about the history of the practice. It is generally accepted that cremation likely began around 3000 B.C among early Stone Age populations in Europe and the Near East. Decorative pottery urns dating to the later Stone Age have been found in western Russia, indicating that cremation was spreading among Slavic peoples.

The practice continued its march across the continent in the Bronze Age (2500 to 1000 B.C.) as it moved into the British Isles and into present day Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries for cremation have been found in Hungary and northern Italy. By around 1000 B.C. cremation was an important part of elaborate Grecian burial customs and by about 800 B.C. became the principal mode of disposition. To ensure public health, cremation was the primary method used to handle legions of slain warriors in that war torn country.

Romans probably embraced cremation around 600 B.C. It evidently became so widespread that an official decree was issued in the mid-5th Century to prohibit cremation of bodies within the city. By the time of the Roman Empire (27 B.C. to 395 A.D) archaeological evidence suggests that cremated remains were placed in elaborate urns and stored in columbarium-like buildings. As popular as the practice was among Romans, cremation was not well accepted among early Christians who considered it pagan or within Jewish culture where traditional burial was the custom.

By 400 A.D. during the reign of Constantine and the rise of Christendom burial had completely replaced cremation except in cases of plague or war. For the next 1,500 years it remained the conventional mode of disposition throughout Europe.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), modern cremation actually began about 150 years ago. After years of experimentation, Professor Brunetti of Italy finally perfected a dependable cremation chamber and displayed it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. A year later, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson was concerned with hazardous health conditions in the British Isles so he and his colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England. It took only 4 more years for the first European crematories to be built – one in Woking, England and another in Gotha, Germany.

Even though there were two recorded cremations in North America before 1800, the story on this continent really begins in 1876 when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania. By 1884 a second crematory opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was owned and operated by a cremation society, as were many crematories of the era. Two of the driving forces behind many early crematories were Protestant clergy attempting to reform burial practices and members of the medical profession concerned with health conditions around early cemeteries. Soon, there were crematories in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles, and by the turn of the century there were 20 crematories in operation. When the Cremation Association of America was founded in 1913, the number had risen to 52 crematories with more than 10,000 cremations performed that year alone.

In 1999, there were 1,468 crematories and 595,617 cremations in the United States (a rate of 25.39% of all deaths). By 2011, the number of cremations rose to 1,044,066 (42.23%) and statistics suggest that the number will be as high as 49.4% by 2016.

Cremation provides an affordable alternative that many find appealing. The general range of $1,000 – $3,000 is substantially lower than a traditional funeral & burial that carries an average cost nationally of $7,300 (not including a gravesite, burial vault and marker or headstone). Several options to be considered after cremation include interment in a single location, scattering at a favorite location or dividing cremated remains into keepsake urns, jewelry or other items for safekeeping by multiple family members.

The environmental factor plays a part in the equation as well. Traditional burials require land consumption and perpetual cemetery maintenance whereas most cremations do not. Cremation also serves as a simple solution that helps mobile families fulfill a loved one’s desire to return “home”, wherever that home may be. Finally, most religions are becoming more tolerant of cremation and are relaxing previous restrictions. In fact, some churches even build columbaria to display cremation urns so that members may choose a final resting place on church property.

Religious persons should discuss cremation with someone familiar with church guidelines to confirm that all plans are in line with its teachings. Regardless of whether or not cremation is the preferred choice, be sure to share the plan with family and loved ones. Remember, your personal choice may not be what your family would choose and some may be uncomfortable with your wishes. But with a little research and a good communication, the end result will be one that assures peace of mind and cooperation among everyone involved.

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