views updated May 23 2018


Cremation is the burning of the human body until its soft parts are destroyed by fire. The skeletal remains and ash residue (cremains) often become the object of religious rites, one for the body and one for the bones. The anthropologist Robert Hertz has described this as a double burial, with a "wet" first phase coping with the corpse and its decay, and a "dry" second phase treating the skeletal remains and ash. The chief difference between cremation and burial is the speed of transformation: Corpses burn in two hours or less, but bodies take months or years to decay, depending upon methods used and local soil conditions. The method of body disposal least like cremation is mummification, which seeks to preserve the body rather than destroy it.

Ancient Cremation

Archaeological evidence shows cremation rituals dating back to ancient times. In classical antiquity, cremation was a military procedure and thus was associated with battlefield honors. Both cremation and the interment of cremated remains are described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, both dating from the eighth century B.C.E. The seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin echoed another classical story in his masterpiece The Ashes of Phocion, perhaps the most famous of all cremation-linked paintings, in which a faithful wife gathers the ashes of her husband, an improperly shamed leader who was cremated without the proper rites.

The ritual cremation of Roman emperors involved the release of an eagle above the cremation pyre to symbolize his deification and the passing of the emperor-god's spirit. The reasons for shifts between cremation and burial in classical times are not always apparent; fashion or even the availability of wood may have been involved.

Cremation Cultures

It was in India and in the Indian-influenced cultures of Buddhism and Sikhism that cremation developed into a central and enduring social institution. Basic to Hinduism is the belief that the life force underlying human existence is not restricted to one life but undergoes numerous transmigrations that may involve nonhuman forms. Hence the "self" and the identity of an individual are not simply and inevitably linked to any one body. Cremation became an appropriate vehicle for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life and the eternity of spiritual life.

Hinduism. For traditional Hindus, cremation fit into an overall scheme of destiny. Symbolically, the human embryo resulted from the combination of male seed forming bones and female blood providing flesh. In this account the spirit enters the fetus through the cranial suture of the skull, with the growing embryo in a sense being "cooked" by the heat of the womb. At the end of life, a symbolic reversal sees the heat of the funeral pyre separating flesh from bones; the rite of skull-cracking frees the spirit for its ongoing journey, which is influenced by karma, or merit accrued during life. The fire itself is the medium by which the body is offered to the gods as a kind of last sacrifice; cremation should take place in Banaras, the sacred city through which the sacred Ganges River flows. It is on the banks of the Ganges that cremations occur and cremated remains are placed in its holy waters. Hindus living in other parts of the world also practice cremation and either place cremated remains in local rivers or send the remains to be placed in the Ganges. While rites are also performed for set periods after cremation, there is no monument for the dead, whose ultimate destiny lies in the future and not in some past event.

Buddhism. Cremation is the preferred funeral rite for Buddhists as well and is reinforced by the fact that the Buddha was himself cremated. Tradition tells how his funeral pyre self-ignited, but only after many followers had come to pay respects to his body. When the flames ceased, no ash remainedonly bones. These remains were divided into eight parts and built into eight stupas in different territories. This is a good example of how cremation makes possible a greater variety of memorializing the dead than does burial. Contemporary Buddhists practice both cremation and burial.

Evil and Emergency Cremation

Cremation is not only an established social custom but has also been used on battlefields to save the dead from the ravages of the enemy and as an emergency measure during plagues, as in the Black Death of the seventeenth century. The most inescapably negative use of cremation in human history was during the Holocaust, the Nazi regime's mass murder of millions of Jews and others, including Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill, all deemed culturally unacceptable to Hitler's Third Reich during World War II. The Nazi concentration camps came to symbolize the inhumanity of killing men, women, and children and then disposing of their bodies by cremation or mass burial. In this case, cremation was a kind of industrial process necessary to deal with the immense number of corpses that attended Hitler's "Final Solution."

Modern Cremation

With the increasing predominance of Christianity in Europe after the fifth century C.E., cremation was gradually abandoned in favor of earth burial as a symbol of the burial and resurrection of Christ. Charlemagne criminalized cremation in the Christian West in 789 C.E. There were subsequent countercurrents, including the unusual seventeenth-century treatise of Sir Thomas Browne on urn burial, Hydriotaphia (1658), and the brief French revolutionary attempt to foster cremation as a rebuke to Christianity in the 1790s.

It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that a widespread interest in cremation resurfaced, prompted by a variety of social, philosophical, and technological factors. The major social elements related to massive increases in the population of industrial towns and major cities, whose cemeteries were increasingly hard-pressed to cope with the volume of the dead in an era of heightened concern with public hygienecorpses buried near the surface of the ground were seen as a potential health risk. This was also a period of considerable interest in freedom of thought and creative engagement with ideas of progress. Traditional religious constraints were not viewed as impossible barriers to progress. Societies were established to promote cremation in many influential cities, including London and The Hague in 1874, Washington, D.C., in 1876, and New York in 1882. Central to these interest groups lay influential people as with Sir Henry Thompson (surgeon to Queen Victoria), whose highly influential book on cremation, The Treatment of the Body after Death, was published in 1874, followed shortly by William Eassie's Cremation of the Dead in 1875.

Italy was a major force in the renaissance of cremation; Brunetti's model cremator and display of cremated remains at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 are credited with having prompted Sir Henry Thompson's interest. There was also a congress on cremation in Milan in 1874. These groups often existed for years before they achieved the goal of cremation as a legal and established practice. In Holland, for example, the 1874 group did not actually open a crematorium until 1914. Often there were objections from a variety of Christian churches, which contended that cremation would interfere with the resurrection of the body or that cremation spurned the example of the "burial" of Jesus. Sometimes the reasons were political rather than theological. Catholics in Italy, for example, found cremation unacceptable because it was favored and advocated by the anticlerical Free-masons. Indeed, it was not until the mid-1960s that the Roman Catholic Church accepted cremation as an appropriate form of funeral for its members.

The preoccupation with technological advancement in the nineteenth century also spurred the fortunes of cremation. It had become relatively easy to contemplate building ovens for the combustion of human bodies as well as architectural features to house them. Machines like the cremulator, for grinding larger bone fragments into dust, are similarly industrial in nature. The early crematoria were temporary, little more than ovens or grandly designed landmarks. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they began to resemble church buildings; in the late twentieth century there was more scope for architects to reflect upon life and death in these unique structures.

In the late twentieth century cremation became a serious topic of academic study. It was only at the turn of the twenty-first century that serious academic interest in cremationsociological, theological, and historicalemerged. The numerous journals published by many cremation societies have also made important contributions, systematically recording cremation rates, new crematoria, and technical developments. The Archives of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, held at the University of Durham, is one example, as is the Fabretti Institute of Turin in Italy.

Christian Traditions and Cultures

The most interesting aspect of the relationship between cremation and society within Western societies derives from the relative influence of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. Greek and Russian Orthodoxy stand in firm opposition to cremation, and cremation rates are very low in strict Orthodox societies such as Greece. During the communist era in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, cremation was often pressed in an ideological fashion, which in turn spurred stronger opposition from various Christian denominations.

In Western Europe cremation rates vary with the degree of Catholic or Protestant influence in each country's tradition. In 1999 the cremation rate in Great Britain and Denmark was 71 percent and 68 percent in Sweden. In Finland, by contrast, with equally strong Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, the rate was only 25 percent. The Netherlands, roughly equally divided between Protestant and Catholic traditions, stood at 48 percent. The Catholic influence is more evident in Hungary (30%), Austria (21%), France (16%), Spain (13%), Italy (5%), and Ireland (5%).

The United States presents an interesting picture of mixed religious traditions with an overall cremation rate of approximately 25 percent. This may seem an unusually low figure, but it encompasses a wide variation in local practices. Washington, Nevada, and Oregon, have cremation rates of approximately 57 percent while Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia are about 5 percent.

Social Change and Cremation

In the West, the turn of the twentieth century saw the rise of strongly motivated individuals, often coalescing into small pressure groups that were ideologically committed to cremation. After World War II cremation began to be incorporated into social welfare provisions in numerous countries. Just as the urban growth of the middle and late nineteenth century had led to the establishment of many large cemeteries in European cities, so the later twentieth century was marked by the growth of crematoria. Cremation was a symptom not only of massive urbanization and the drive for social hygiene but also an increased medicalization of death. With more people dying in hospitals rather than at home, their bodies were collected by funeral directors and might be kept in special premises away from their home. Indeed the very concept of the "funeral home" developed to mark a place where a body could be kept and visited by the bereaved family. Cremation thus was another example of a rising trend of commercialization and professionalization of various aspects of life in the West. Cremation was but one aspect of a broader tendency toward efficiency, scientific technology, and consumer choice. It also served the psychological function of allaying the fears of those who were haunted by irrational fears of decay or of being buried alive. Cremation is also often less expensive than burial.

Although the upward trend in cremation continued unabated through the late twentieth century, there was a slight ripple of concern emanating from the environmental community, which pointed to the deleterious effect of industrial and domestic emission of gasesmany communities have adopted more stringent laws for the running of cremators. On a populist front, this raised a question mark over the desirability of cremation. In Great Britain some minority groups have raised the idea of "green" woodland burials in which individuals are buried without elaborate coffins or caskets and in full recognition that their bodies would soon return to the earth in a form of earth-friendly decay.

Cremation, Privatization, and Secularization

As Christianity achieved dominance in Europe in its first millennium and firmly established itself geographically in the second, it imposed a much more formal theology and ritual, not least over death. Catholic Christianity's funerary rites included preparation of the dying for their eternal journey, along with masses and prayers for their migrant souls. Cemeteries were closely aligned with churches, and death rites were under ecclesiastical control.

With the advent of cremation, there arose a new possibility disengaging death rites from ecclesiastical control. For much of the late nineteenth century and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the great majority of cremation rites were set within a religious ritual framework overseen by the Protestant clergy. Catholic priests were also freed to do so from the mid-1960s, but by the late twentieth century clerical involvement in cremation was on the wane. Traditional burial was conducted under the control of a Christian church, and though remains might later have been removed to a charnel house (a place for storing human bones), the transfer was often a nonceremonial affair. Burials in some places could also be conducted without church rites, but it was with modern cremation that a secular process appeared more acceptable. Often the emphasis on what came to be called "life-centered" funerals was celebratory, with a focus on the past life of the deceased and not, as in traditional Christian rites, on the future hope of resurrection.

Cremated Remains

In contrast to the traditional practice of placing cremated remains in urns and storing them in columbaria (buildings containing niches in their walls), late-twentieth-century practices in the West have included the removal of cremated remains from crematoria by family members and their placement in locations of personal significance. This was the birth of a new tradition as individuals invented ways of placing remains in natural environments: mountains, rivers, gardens, or places of recreation and holiday where the survivors acknowledged that the deceased had spent pleasant and memorable times.

See also: Funeral Industry; Genocide; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Widow-Burning


Davies, Douglas J. "Theologies of Disposal." In Peter C. Jupp and Tony Rogers eds., Interpreting Death: Christian Theology and Pastoral Practice. London: Cassell, 1997.

Davies, Douglas J. Cremation Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham, England: Alcuin/GROW Books, 1990.

Jupp, Peter C. From Dust to Ashes: The Replacement of Burial by Cremation in England 18401967. London: Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, 1990.

Parry, Jonathan P. Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Prothero, Stephen. Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.



views updated May 18 2018


Cremationthat is, the reduction of dead bodies to ashes by burningwas and is widely practiced in some societies. In many cultures the practices of cremation and inhumation (burial in the earth) exist side by side. Among the ancient Greeks, ground burial was the more common practice, but the Greeks incinerated the corpses of warriors killed in battle in order more easily to transport their remains to the homeland for ceremonial entombment. Ancient writers reveal that cremation was the more common practice among the Romans in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ. About the year A.D. 100 a noteworthy shift from cremation to inhumation took place in the Roman Empire that is said to have been caused by the shortage of wood for funeral pyres.

Another factor that contributed to the discontinuance of cremation was the development of ideas about afterlife in the dominant philosophies and religions that flourished across the Mediterranean basin. Cremation was never a common practice among the Egyptians, who expected departed souls to reenter the body. The Hebrew Scriptures witness to the fact that the Israelites buried their dead. The Gospel accounts describe how those who took Jesus' body from the cross were careful to observe Jewish burial practices as to time and manner of burial. Early Christians, even during the era of persecutions, maintained extensive cemeteries in Rome, North Africa, and elsewhere. Gradually Christian reverence for the body as a "temple of the Holy Spirit," together with their belief in life after death, resurrection, and the immortality of the soul, reinforced the practice of inhumation. Through the Middle Ages into modern times cremation remained the exception, surfacing from time to time in circumstances of mass deaths from plagues, war, and natural disasters.

New Interest and New Methods. When cremation returned to modern western culture in the 19th century, long gone was the ceremonial burning of the corpse on a pyre of wood. The development of the cremation chamber or retort, aided by ready availability of fossil fuels (coal and coke) and new technology, displaced the funeral pyre. The first successful cremation furnace and the remains of a cremated corpse displayed at the Vienna Exposition of 1873 mark the beginning of scientific cremation in the modern age. The following year, the practice gained more notoriety when Queen Victoria's personal surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, one of the founders of the Cremation Society of England, published Cremation: The Treatment of the Body after Death. News of the Exposition and proliferation of cremation societies in Europe received wide coverage in the popular American press. In 1876 the first cremation in modern America took place in rural Washington, Pennsylvania.

In the 20th century cremation became the choice of rapidly increasing numbers in Great Britain and Europe. The move toward cremation was in part fueled by a reaction against the "American way of death" with embalming and cosmetic restoration of the corpse and funeral parlors where the deceased can be waked and viewed as life-like as possible. Opposition to the perceived ostentation and cost of funerals together with new ecological concerns about land use caused many in the United States, Catholics among them, to look for simpler alternatives. In the years between the 1960s and 1980s, cremations increased to some 13% in the United States and 25% in Canada. Catholics chose about 20% of the direct cremations reported, and Jews another 20%. By the year 2000, some 26% of Americans and 45% of Canadians opted for cremation, and by the middle of the third millennium, cremations are expected to overtake earth burials.

Modern cremation is a process of vaporization that reduces the human body to bone fragments by means of intense heat (16002400 °F). Ordinarily the bone fragments, weighing up to eight pounds, are then pulverized into a powder-like substance. In itself the end result of cremation is no different from that of natural decomposition in earth or sea. Although government documents and Catholic literature generally refer to them as "cremated remains" or simply by the colloquial term "ashes," the mortuary establishment has coined the neologism "cremains" to emphasize that the pulverized remains are not strictly speaking ashes.

The Church and Cremation. In the 19th century, proponents of cremation in Europe generally argued their case on the basis of public hygiene and land conservation, but the Church regarded the cremation societies as materialist and saw the practice as incompatible with the traditional burial customs of the Christian liturgy. In 1886 the Holy Office forbade Catholics from joining cremation societies and prohibited the practice of cremation. The 1917 Code of Canon Law did not address cremation as such but was sharply critical of the reasons used to justify it (c. 1203). The 1917 Code also prohibited ecclesiastical burial of bodies that were to be cremated (c. 1240). Directives to missionaries outside Europe, however, were milder in tone and allowed greater toleration of the practice [see Fonti (Fontes) CICO 4 n1189; 7n4905, Collectanea 2n1626]. Nonetheless, as late as 1926, an instruction of the Holy Office still characterized proponents of cremation as "enemies of Christianity" and warned of the dangers of deemphasizing the resurrection of the body (AAS 18.282). These societies were perceived to be sectarian, hateful, and contrary to Catholic doctrine (c. 1203).

Responding to the changing pastoral needs brought about by growth in the number of cremations, particularly in Great Britain and Europe, the Holy See lifted the ban on cremation. The penalties of canon 1240 were virtually repealed by an instruction of the Holy Office (Piam et constantem, July 5, 1963). The lifting of the prohibition reflected the reality that most proponents of cremation are not motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. The reasons they give for cremation stress rather simplicity, sanitation, sound use of scarce land and, in North America, economic concerns.

Consequently, the option to select cremation as a means of final disposition was incorporated in the Ordo Exsequiarum for the universal Church of the Roman Rite (1969) and in funeral rites for English-speaking countries (The Rite of Funerals 19701989). The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law (c. 1176) codified the authorization and liturgical law. According to the revised law, good will among the faithful is presumed. Cremation and interment both are subject to the same criterion: that Catholic faith and liturgical practice guide and direct pastoral care at the time of death.

The bishops in Canada had secured permission from the Holy See to celebrate the full funeral liturgy with the ashes present. Thus, when the Canadian bishops published the funeral ritual for use in Canada (1990), it included a rite for "Funeral liturgy in the presence of ashes." Although the 1989 U.S. edition of the Order of Christian Funerals included prayers for cremated remains at the Rite of Committal (following the European model), it did not directly address the issue of funeral Mass with the cremated remains. By 1996, however, pastoral circumstances urged the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States to request an "indult" to permit celebration of Catholic funeral liturgy with the cremated remains in place of the body. The Holy See authorized the permission on March 21, 1997, and an Appendix to the U.S. Order of Christian Funerals (411438) appeared later that year.

The Funeral Liturgy and Disposal of the Remains. The 1997 Appendix for Cremation in the Order of Christian Funerals offers three options. Cremation Following the Funeral Liturgy (OCF, 418421). The first option states the traditional preference that cremation follow the funeral while retaining reverent disposition of the cremated remains through burial or entombment in a cemetery. "The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites." Cremation and Committal of the Remains before the Funeral Liturgy (OCF, 422425). This second option reverses the ordinary sequence of funeral rites by suggesting that the bereaved gather for the committal of the cremated remains at a cemetery first, and then proceed to the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy at church (OCF, 423). This option where cremation and committal both take place before the funeral Mass implicitly acknowledges the distinction between the body and cremated remains as two different forms of mortal remains. That is, it identifies the Rite of Committal as the existing service already designated for use with cremated remains and invites the bereaved to adapt Prayers after Death and the Vigil for the Deceased to the new circumstances (OCF, 422). Funeral Liturgy with the Cremated Remains Present (OCF, 426431). This third option responds to the practical realities of direct or immediate cremation in the United States and Canada. This includes the understanding that the Rite of Committal will mark the burial or entombment of the remains at an appropriate time following the Funeral Liturgy.

Finally, a word about the manner of disposing of cremated remains. Liturgical tradition and the role the Catholic cemetery plays in preserving the memory of Christians profess explicit belief in the promise of resurrection. The cremation Appendix to the OCF expresses the clear preference for preserving the remains of loved ones by interment in a tomb or preservation in a columbarium. "The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased, are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires" (OCF, 417). Burial at sea, however, whether marking the final disposition of a corpse in a coffin or cremated remains in an urn or appropriate vessel, is acceptable.

The resurrection of the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing canon 1176, makes the simple statement, "The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body" (n. 2301). Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is in no way affected by the state of the corporeal remains. This has been the clearly articulated teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the history of the cremation controversy in the 19th century. Whatever their form, the mortal remains of the deadwhether lost at sea, destroyed by fire, naturally decomposed, or crematedfunction in faith and liturgy in relation to the person whose living flesh and blood they once were.

The faith claims expressed in the historic rites of the Order of Christian Funerals are grounded in the symbol of the mortal remains, attended to liturgically through symbols related to the person. That is, we invest the mortal remains with what we believe about the person. Christians have always treated the body with reverence and kept its resting place sacred because they believe it has been one with the soul in life's spiritual journey. In the funeral the Church addresses the person, reflected in the body or cremated remains, who, in Christian hope, is believed to be participating now in the victory of Jesus' death and resurrection, carried by angels to the heavenly Jerusalem, and welcomed triumphantly by the martyrs and all the saints even as the corpse is carried in procession to the church (the earthly symbol of that heavenly court) for a final farewell.

The symbolic motif of procession to Christ (ire ad Christum ) captures the religious imagination of the bereaved church, as do the references to the sacramental life of the deceased expressed in baptismal water, white pall, paschal candle, and, above all, the Eucharistic celebration itself. For ancient Christians, belief in the mystery of the incarnation and the promise of resurrection in the likeness of the risen Christ transformed superstitious concerns about the lot of the dead. What emerged was the traditional heritage that informs Catholic funeral liturgy today. The body that participated integrally in all the expressions of Catholic sacramental life is the primary object of liturgical attention in funeral liturgy. Yet, whatever form human remains take, they are due Christian respect as the final form of the flesh and blood person who lived and died and will rise in relationship with God.

Bibliography: national conference of catholic bishops, Order of Christian Funerals (1989), including Appendix on Cremation; available from three publishers: Catholic Book Publishing Co., The Liturgical Press, and Liturgical Training Publications. committee on the liturgy, national conference of catholic bishops, Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites (Washington, DC 1997). m. e. cunningham, "Cremation in Catechesis and the Funeral Liturgy," Living Light 34 (1998) 1929. j. d. davies, Cremation Today and Tomorrow (Nottingham 1990). m. j. henchal, "Cremation: Canonical Issues," The Jurist 55 (1995) 281298. j. mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (New York 1998). s. r. prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley, CA 2001). h. r. rutherford, "Cremation American style: A Change for the Better?" in: t. fitzgerald and m. f. connell, eds., The Changing Face of the Church (Chicago 1998) 159175. "Different SymbolsDifferent Rites: Funeral Liturgy with Cremated Remains," Liturgical Ministry 4 (1995) 3644. Honoring the Dead: Catholics and Cremation Today (Collegeville, MN 2001). j. m. c. toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (London 1971).

[r. rutherford/eds.]


views updated May 21 2018


Cremation, the incineration of a corpse by heat or fire, emerged as an alternative to burial in the United States in the 1870s, when social reformers began to argue for the practice on sanitary grounds. A series of epidemics had devastated U.S. cities, and many physicians placed the blame on corpses decaying in crowded urban graveyards. In 1876, cremation advocates, led by Theosophical Society president Henry Steel Olcott, conducted the first indoor cremation in America (many Native American tribes had previously cremated in the open air) at a private crematory built on the estate of Dr. Julius Le Moyne in Washington, Pennsylvania. Opposition was widespread. Many viewed cremation as an affront to the Jewish and Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection, and in 1886 the Catholic Church banned it. But the practice of cremation grew quickly nonetheless. By 1900, twenty-four crematories were operating in fifteen states and more than ten thousand Americans had cremated deceased relatives.

Growth moderated in the first half of the twentieth century. Between World War II and the early 1960s, the cremation movement stagnated, hurt by associations with Nazi concentration camp crematoriums. The cremation rate (the ratio or cremations to deaths) hovered for nearly two decades at just under 4 percent. Beginning in the sixties, however, cremation rapidly gained ground. By 1998, roughly one in every four deceased Americans was cremated (24 percent). Although cremation has remained out of favor in some Bible Belt states and among African Americans, Jews, and Muslims, it has become more common than burial in Hawaii and in many western states.

A number of factors contributed to cremation's ascent. In 1963 the Catholic Church lifted its ban. In the same year, Jessica Mitford's best-seller The American Way of Death focused public attention on funeral costs and promoted cremation as an inexpensive alternative to burial. Cremation received another boost in the seventies when businesses such as the Telophase Society (established in 1971) began offering cut-rate "direct cremation" services. No longer driven by sanitary concerns, cremation had hitched its star to the consumer movement.

In the 1990s, the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), a trade association originally organized in 1913 as the Cremation Association of America (CAA), cited many factors for cremation's popularity, including environmentalism and Asian immigration. But theological shifts were also at work. In the nineteenth century, U.S. Christians and Jews typically held a psychosomatic view of the person as a body/soul mix, and many hoped for a resurrection of that whole person. For such believers, cremation was a pagan horror. But by the 1990s, popular theologizing had changed dramatically. Many had come to view the self as spirit (or body) only. Belief in heaven and hell had declined. And while the vast majority still affirmed an afterlife, belief in a bodily resurrection had yielded ground to belief in the soul's immortality. All these trends were conducive to the growth of cremation, which has typically been practiced in civilizations (such as ancient Greece) that viewed the self as spirit or mind only.

Cremation got another boost at the end of the twentieth century from baby boomers, who saw the practice as more friendly than burial to mass customization and more in tune with generational values such as simplicity, informality, and spontaneity. In the 1990s, Americans tailored cremation rites to fit the unique personalities of the deceased. Manufacturers advertised golf bag urns for golfing enthusiasts and pink triangle urns for gay men. Families, rather than yielding to the authority of funeral directors or clerics, crafted customized death rites at both crematories and scattering sites. Some critics continued to associate cremation with offbeat personalities (such as LSD guru Timothy Leary, whose cremated remains were rocketed into orbit in 1997), but the practice was clearly going mainstream. Now a consumer option rather than an urgent social reform, cremation had become by the end of the millennium a death rite of choice not only for U.S. Buddhists and Hindus but also for many Christians and some Reform Jews.

See alsoAfterlife; Body; Deathand Dying; Health; Practice; Religious Communities; Ritesof Passage; Spirit; Theosophical Society.


Habenstein, Robert W., and William M. Lamers. TheHistory of American Funeral Directing, 3rd rev. ed., edited and revised by Howard C. Raether. 1995.

Prothero, Stephen. "Lived Religion and the Dead: The Cremation Movement in Gilded Age America." In Lived Religion in America: Toward a History ofPractice, edited by David D. Hall. 1997.

Stephen Prothero


views updated May 21 2018


Disposal of the dead body by burning is not a Jewish custom and inhumation is considered by traditional Jews to be obligatory and a religious commandment. The passage in Deuteronomy (21:23) "his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day" has been advanced as a scriptural proof, as well as other biblical sayings such as "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19). Cremation, however, was not unknown to the early Hebrews, and "burning" was one of the four death penalties imposed by the biblical code for a number of offenses (Lev. 20:14; 21:9). The ancient rabbis, however, found the execution of this death sentence so abhorrent that they refused to interpret the injunction literally (Sanh. 7:2 and tj, Sanh. 7:2, 24b). In biblical times, cremation was clearly considered to be a humiliation inflicted on criminals (Josh. 7:15, 25; Isa. 30:33) and the practice as such was reprobated, even when it involved the burning of the remains of an Edomite king (Amos 2:1). i Samuel (31:11–12) seems to refer to the cremation of the remains of King Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh-Gilead; but this is an isolated incident and the literal reading of the verse has been challenged by Driver who reads sarap ("anointed with spices") for saraf ("burnt"; zaw, 66 (1954), 314–15; also Koehler-Baumgartner, supplement, 175). i Chronicles (10:12) merely records that "the bodies were buried." According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jews "bury rather than burn their dead" (Hist. 5:5). The Mishnah (Av. Zar. 1:3) considers the burning of a corpse to be an idolatrous practice, and the Talmud (Sanh. 46b) deduced that burial is a positive commandment prescribed in Deuteronomy (21:23). This is the ruling followed by Maimonides (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 231, 536, positive command), and by the Shulḥan Arukh (yd 362). Tykoczinsky (Gesher ha-Ḥayyim, 2 (1947)) quotes the rabbinic idea that cremation is a denial of the belief in bodily resurrection and an affront to the dignity of the human body. On the other hand, some authorities permitted calcium to be spread over bodies already in the grave in order to stimulate decomposition (Responsa Rashba, pt. 1, no. 369; Isserles to Sh. Ar., yd 363:2). Others even suggested that interment was but a custom, supporting their statement with a passage from Midrash va-Yosha (Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1 (19382), 37) in which Isaac begs his father at the sacrifice to be cremated completely. It was also suggested that as long as the body is brought into contact with the earth as soon as possible (in conformity with the injunction Teikhefle-mitah kevurah; "immediate burial after death"), it does not matter how the corpse is disposed of.

Modern European Orthodox authorities have insisted that burial is the proper method of disposal of a corpse, a view taken by the Italian chief rabbinate (see Vessillo Israelitico, 23 (1875), 12) and, in 1895, by the rabbi of Wuerttemberg (rej, 32 (1896), 276). Chief Rabbi Marcus Nathan *Adler of Britain, though opposed to cremation, permitted the ashes of a person who had been cremated to be interred in a Jewish cemetery in 1887. The decision was sustained by his successor, Herman *Adler (1891), who quoted the authority of Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spector. It was also the attitude of Chief Rabbi Zadoc *Kahn of France. American Reform rabbis, in accordance with a decision made at the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1892, are permitted to officiate at cremation ceremonies. Reform rabbis of Europe also often officiate at cremations. A regulation of the United Synagogue of London Burial Society states that "if the ashes can be encoffined, then interment may take place at a cemetery of the United Synagogue, and the Burial Service shall be conducted there at the time of the interment." Ultra-Orthodox communities, however, do not permit the ashes of cremated persons to be buried in their cemeteries.


jc (Oct. 2, 1891), 10; Schlesinger, in: ccary, 2 (1891/92), 33–40; 3 (1892/93), 40–41; Felsenthal, ibid., 3 (1892/93), 53–68; M. Higger, Halakhot ve-Aggadot (1933), 161–83 (complete survey of halakhic literature); M. Lerner, Hayyei Olam (1905); je, 4 (1902), 342–4; H. Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life (1964), 25–30.

[Harry Rabinowicz]


views updated Jun 11 2018

Cremation. Method of disposing of dead bodies by burning. It is the natural method of disposal in those religions (e.g. Hinduism: see ANTYEṢṬI) which regard the body as a dispensable vehicle for an immortal soul (soma sēma, ‘the body a tomb’), or, as in the case of Buddhism, where the process of reappearance alone continues. But in religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where there is belief in resurrection of the body, burial has been preferred as, intuitively, suggesting an easier reconstitution of the parts.


views updated May 18 2018

cremation Ritual disposal of a corpse by burning. It was a common custom in parts of the ancient civilized world, and is still the only funeral practice among Hindus and Buddhists. Early Christians rejected cremation because of their belief in the physical resurrection of the body. It was not until the 19th century that it was revived in the Western world. Its legitimacy is now recognized by all Christian Churches.