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 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?
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.
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