Why Bodies Are Sometimes Cremated?
Cremation is the burning of human remains to ashes. Reasons given for adopting this practice include considerations of hygiene, a shortage of land for cemeteries and the rapid growth in population. Many peoples of the ancient world, including the Greeks and Romans, practiced cremation. But in Europe it ceased to be popular with the growth of Christianity and belief in the resurrection of the body.
The modern development of cremation dates from 1874 with the formation of the Cremation Society of England. The society’s aim was to replace burial with a method of disposal which would “rapidly resolve the body into its component elements by a process which would not offend the living and would render the remains perfectly innocuous”.
The society met with much opposition, and it was not until after the Second World War that local authorities decided to encourage cremation because of the shortage of land. Today cremation is permitted either by law or by custom in about three-quarters of the countries of the world.
Cremation dates from at least 42,000 years ago in the archaeological record, with the Mungo Lady, the remains of a partly cremated body found at Lake Mungo, Australia. Alternative death rituals emphasizing one method of disposal of a body—inhumation (burial), cremation, or exposures—have gone through periods of preference throughout history.
In the Middle East and Europe, both burial and cremation are evident in the archaeological record in the Neolithic era. Cultural groups had their own preferences and prohibitions. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration-of-soul theology, which prohibited cremation. This was also widely adopted by Semitic peoples.
The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead. Early Persians practiced cremation, but this became prohibited during the Zoroastrian Period. Phoenicians practiced both cremation and burial. From the Cycladic civilisation in 3000 BCE until the Sub-Mycenaean era in 1200–1100 BCE, Greeks practiced inhumation.
Cremation appeared around the 12th century BCE, constituting a new practice of burial, probably influenced by Anatolia. Until the Christian era, when inhumation again became the only burial practice, both combustion and inhumation had been practiced, depending on the era and location. Romans practiced both, with cremation generally associated with military honors.
In Europe, there are traces of cremation dating to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 BCE) in the Pannonian Plain and along the middle Danube. The custom became dominant throughout Bronze Age Europe with the Urnfield culture (from c. 1300 BCE). In the Iron Age, inhumation again becomes more common, but cremation persisted in the Villanovan culture and elsewhere.
Homer’s account of Patroclus’ burial describes cremation with subsequent burial in a tumulus, similar to Urnfield burials, and qualifying as the earliest description of cremation rites. This may be an anachronism, as during Mycenaean times burial was generally preferred, and Homer may have been reflecting the more common use of cremation at the time the Iliad was written, centuries later.
Criticism of burial rites is a common form of aspersion by competing religions and cultures, including the association of cremation with fire sacrifice or human sacrifice.
Hinduism and Jainism are notable for not only allowing but prescribing cremation. Cremation in India is first attested in the Cemetery H culture (from c. 1900 BCE), considered the formative stage of Vedic civilization. The Rigveda contains a reference to the emerging practice, in RV 10.15.14, where the forefathers “both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)” are invoked.
Cremation remained common but not universal, in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome. According to Cicero, in Rome, inhumation was considered the more archaic rite, while the most honoured citizens were most typically cremated—especially upper classes and members of imperial families.
The rise of Christianity saw an end to cremation, being influenced by its roots in Judaism, the belief in the resurrection of the body, and following the example of Christ’s burial. Anthropologists have been able to track the advance of Christianity throughout Europe with the appearance of cemeteries. By the 5th century, with the spread of Christianity, the practice of burning bodies gradually disappeared from Europe.
In early Roman Britain, cremation was usual but diminished by the 4th century. It then reappeared in the 5th and 6th centuries during the migration era, when sacrificed animals were sometimes included with the human bodies on the pyre, and the deceased were dressed in costume and with ornaments for the burning. That custom was also very widespread among the Germanic peoples of the northern continental lands from which the Anglo-Saxonmigrants are supposed to have been derived, during the same period.
These ashes were usually thereafter deposited in a vessel of clay or bronze in an “urn cemetery”. The custom again died out with the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons or Early English during the 7th century, when Christian burial became general.