Cremation: The Hot Burial Trend

According to Tyler Mathisen of CNBC news, the hottest growing trend within the “death care industry”, a $17- billion-a-year business in America, is cremation. Of the 2.5 million people who died in 2011 in North America, 42% of them were cremated. That means that the rate of cremation has doubled over the past decade and a half. Of course, this varies widely across state with Nevada having the highest at 74% of deceased being cremated, and Washington a close second with 72%, and at the other end the lowest is Mississippi’s, at 15.7 percent. Why this rise in cremation? Mathisen offers a few reasons: 1) relaxation of religious rules regarding burial types, 2) decline in family plots and movement of families away from one another, and 3) cost. This change in burial practices is not a new trend however. Throughout history, choices in burial types have shifted due to social processes like the introduction of new religious doctrines or political takeover, or environmental shifts leading to new ideas about death. This is not the first time that cremation has jumped in popularity, and it won’t likely be the final burial choice either.

Cremation on the Bagamati, Hindu cremation, via Wikimedia Commons

Cremation on the Bagamati, Hindu cremation, via Wikimedia Commons

Cremation has been practiced all throughout history in numerous regions. One of the first peaks in popularity noted through texts was during the Roman Empire, from the 1st c. BCE through the 2nd c. CE, when it became highly fashionable to be cremated. Cremation declined throughout Europe in the 3rd and 4th centuries, regaining come popularity with the migration of the ‘barbarian’ tribes westwards. The settlement of England by the Angles and Saxons also led to a rise in cremation once again. As Christianity grew however, cremation declines as it is perceived as being destructive  and those who are burned are done so as punishment. With the Christian conception of hell involving fire, cremation no longer became a fitting burial. Further, association with this religion often meant association with power and the elite, so regardless of belief there was a shift in trend to ally oneself to those more powerful. This doesn’t mean it stopped everywhere. Buddhism, Hinduism and other Indian religions mandate cremation, and has been the traditional form of disposal for hundreds of years. Their conception of cremation is that it allows for the soul to be set free from the body.

Western nations have a longer history of disapproving of cremation, with some religions like Catholicism forbidding it more strongly than others, like Protestantism. Why then, is cremation become popular among many denominations? Perhaps cremation isn’t so strongly linked to religion, but rather broader social processes?

1874 comic about cremation, via Wikimedia, click to see expanded version

1874 comic about cremation, via Wikimedia, click to see expanded version

Cremation as we know it, incineration within a closed chamber, was first invented in 1873 by Professor Brunetti from Italy. This new controlled and efficient method led to the spread of cremation throughout Europe and North America. Cremation societies and doctors led a movement to control disease and improve public health through the widespread use of cremation. The conditions of many burial grounds, especially those in London, were appalling and it was thought this was a major cause of disease. In 1874, the first Cremation Society, a secular organisation, was formed in London to campaign for cremation on the grounds of hygiene and cost. The first crematorium was built in the US in 1876 and in the UK in 1881. Cremation quickly became popular among the educated and wealthy in the early 20th century, but lost favor once again as the health risks were dispelled. With the increase in deaths due to two World Wars there was increasing acceptance among the masses but still no widespread popularity.

More recently in the mid-20th century, the perspective of cremation has been altered by various cremation societies, who now advertise this as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to burial. It allows for more to be done with the remains, and for divided families to be easily reunited without expensive transportation of the deceased. The religious bans on cremation were slowly lifted throughout the 20th century, with the Catholic Church holding out on lifting it until 1963. While overall there has been an increase in cremation, it is still more popular among specific groups. In the UK in 2007, the percentage of cremation of the deceased was highly varied by nation with England and Wales at 75%, Scotland 34% and Northern Ireland 17%. In the USA, popularity has gone from 3.6% in 1960 to 42% in 2011. In Canada, cremation is up to 65% in 2010. According to cremation statistics, Japan has the highest amount with 99.8% in 2008.

Individuals are an amalgamation of their personal past, family history and cultural tradition. Add to this the circumstances of death, the mourning community and financial or space constraints. All this, plus religious and social processes, is what we need to take in to account if we want to understand the differences in cremation prevalence. It is interesting how widely burials continue to vary in an increasingly connected world- though maybe its adherence to these traditions that allows us to maintain our cultural connections.

Works Cited

Mathisen 2013. Cremation is the hottest trend in the funeral business. CNBC. http://www.nbcnews.com/business/cremation-hottest-trend-funeral-industry-1B8068228

Bellevie 2011. History of Cremation in N America. http://decorative-urns.com/cremation-blog/about-cremation/the-history-of-cremation-in-north-america/

Serpell 2009 How Cremation Became the Way to Go. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7963119.stm

Cremation Statistics 2008 http://www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc5/Stats/Interntl/2008/StatsIF.html

4 responses to “Cremation: The Hot Burial Trend

  1. Nice article.

    You might also find it interesting that in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, besides any ill ease about associations of cremation with burning punishment or hellfire, there has been a long-standing perspective towards the fullness of a person including the body, which thus is accorded some reverence, and the expectation of the Resurrection of the body as well. Not that Eastern Orthodox have been unaware that, of course, bodies decompose. Part of the significance (like the associations with hell) is, no doubt, symbolic, but it also is concerned with patience towards God’s will: that a body be left to deteriorate in its own time rather than destroyed all at once or indeed to remain preserved to whatever degree for the sake of possible relics (as relics of the Saints have considerable significance in Orthodoxy as well).

    These perceptions may exists in some fashions in other branches of Christianity too, although I don’t know, and the Eastern Orthodox do not have as strict and meticulous an articulation of such dogma as one will find in, say, the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, no doubt some of these religious and spiritual tendencies would account for any paucity of cremation in heavily Orthodox parts of the world or of history (although there is, I have heard, a bit of a modern trend away from this among Orthodox Christians).

    • I’ve heard about that tradition as well- that the body is a holy object through which one does actions of faith and therefore shouldn’t be disturbed following death. Good point about the preservation of Saints. Those who don’t decay are often considered holy!

  2. Cremation is such an interesting concept. We have so much tied into how we believe the body should be treated after death. What is so shocking to me about the new cremation trend is that fiscal elements seem to have extended beyond cultural, even religious, beliefs.
    I grew up in a household that was quite religiously conservative and remember being taught by my parents that cremation was a “sin” as it was intentionally destroying your spiritual vessel. Imagine my shock when last year my mother announced that she had finalized her plans and that her body would be cremated! The overwhelming cost of burial had undermined her staunch, long held beliefs.
    I realize that anecdotal evidence is hardly proof or representative of the whole. At the same time, my personal experience shocked me in terms of how quickly long-held and firm beliefs can change!

  3. Early Christianity was clear in teaching that only burial was appropriate. You bury people so that their bodily remains can later take part in the the resurrection of the dead, hopefully into heaven. The New Testament has loads of passages about this. The Nicene Creed [agreed in 325 CE] says
    “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church the body after resurrection is changed into a spiritual, imperishable body.

    It was only in 1963 that the Roman Catholic Church allowed cremation.

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