The History of Cremation Urns
by Kristal Borjas July 02, 2021 6 min read
Throughout human history, funeral rites and practices have been a reflection of cultural and religious norms. While the customs may change from one civilization and faith to the next, burials and cremations remain as the two primary ways we lay our loved ones to rest.
Cremation may not have as long of a history as burial, but it’s still a practice that dates back more than 20,000 years.
A Brief History of Cremation
The earliest evidence of cremation dates back more than 20,000 years in Australia near Lake Mungo. Throughout history, the practice and associated rituals have evolved.
In the Bronze Age (between 2,500 and 1,000 BC), the Celts were cremating their dead in what is now the Iberian Peninsula and Great Britain. During this same time period, cremation cemeteries were being developed in northern regions of Italy and Hungary.
The ancient Greeks preferred burials, but they also encouraged cremation for a number of reasons:
- It was a more hygienic option at the time.
- The country was in a constant state of war. Cremation was the most practical option to deal with the dead.
As we moved into the Roman era (around 600 BC), cremation became a common practice in high society.
From the time of early Christianity through the late 1800s, burials were the norm. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that cremation once again gained attention. Like the Greeks, society at the time believed cremation to be a more sanitary method of dealing with human remains. Cremation was promoted as a way to help prevent the spread of disease.
From here, interest in cremation grew, and the first crematoriums were built in England and the U.S. in 1878 and 1876 respectively.
Since 1900, the number of crematoriums in the U.S. has grown from 20 to more than 2,100.
Cremation Urns: History and Cultural Significance
People have been creating urns for ashes for as long as cremation has existed. Today, urns are commonly used for storing ashes and memorial purposes. However, throughout history, urns have played different roles in death rituals and rights.
The oldest known urns were discovered in China, and they date back to 5000-3000 BC. More than 700 urns were found in Yangshao regions from this time period.
In the Buddhist tradition in northern Thailand, cremation typically takes place within three days of death. Loved ones visit the deceased nightly until the day of cremation. The funeral procession ends at the crematorium grounds. Those attending the service will place torches made of incense, candles and wood underneath the coffin to start the cremation process.
Ashes are later collected and stored in urns.
The vast majority of Japanese citizens are cremated, as is promoted by Buddhist and Shinto beliefs.
The cremated remains of loved ones typically are placed into urns and buried in family graves.
Archaeologists uncovered urns in Italy, Ireland, Hungary, Greece and many other parts of the world that date back to 2500-1000 BC. In Russia, archaeologists found pottery urns dating back to the Bronze Age.
Urns have been found all throughout Europe.
The ancient Greeks used urns as part of their elaborate death rituals. Given the Greeks’ love for vases, it’s not surprising that their urns (at least for the wealthy) were literal works of art. In fact, the Greeks had several different types of funerary vases:
- Amphorae (tall, slender pots)
- Oinochoe (wine jug)
- Kraters (drinking vessels)
- Kylix (a drinking vessel with a wide bowl)
These vases were sometimes decorated with elaborate, detailed motifs relating to burial rites, religion and beliefs.
Greeks were cremated upon funeral pyres (piles of wood). Rituals were often elaborate. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles paints a clear picture of the cremation process with the funeral of Patroclus. His pyre also contained the bodies of animals, like oxen, dogs and horses, as well as Trojan captives.
When the pyre was finished burning, loved ones collected bones and ashes, which were placed in urns. These cremation urns, sometimes made of gold, were often buried.
The Romans stored cremated ashes in ornate urns, which were stored in a columbarium. A columbarium is a room or underground chamber with dedicated spaces for storing urns. These rooms or chambers were either owned by the family or a local burial society.
In Rome, urns were called “cineraria.” Their urns were mass-produced, but they were personalized with inscriptions. Elaborate carvings covered Roman cinerary urns, and these carvings were typically related to the funeral procession.
Glass urns would appear in the 1st Century AD. Silica was readily available in the Mediterranean, so glass production was commonplace in Rome. In the Columbaria of Rome, archaeologists have found blown glass urns that are still intact.
In central Europe, we have the Urnfield Culture, which spanned from 1300-750 BC. Its name refers to the large and elaborate urn cemeteries.
Their funeral practices were similar to the Greeks. Their dead would be put on display, and earthly valuables and food would be set near the body to honor the deceased. Elegies, which were songs and poems, would be sung to further honor the dead.
After a feast, the body would be burned, and the ashes placed in urns. These urns were typically buried, and a stone would be placed at the site to memorialize the deceased.
Over time, these stones would build up to create cairns.
In 1873, an Italian professor named Brunetti created a design for a crematorium and urns. These ideas were put on display at the Vienna Exposition, and they caught the attention of Sir Henry Thompson, Queen Victoria’s doctor.
Dr. Thompson, recognizing the advantages of cremation, began promoting the practice in the UK. He became the founder of the Cremation Society of England.
Eventually, cremation and urns for ashes would catch on in the United States. Colonel Henry Laurens was the first known modern cremation in the United States. He died in 1792. A funeral pyre was erected on his estate in South Carolina, where he was cremated. Whatever ashes could be recovered were collected, placed in an urn and buried in his family’s cemetery.
In 1874, the New York Times featured several articles on the topic, and cremation has been steadily growing as the preferred method for disposing human remains.
In 1884, a crematorium opened in Pennsylvania, and the practice of cremation was once again promoted not only by physicians but also by the Protestant clergy for its hygiene benefits.
From here, more crematoriums opened up across America, and urns became an important consideration after a loved one’s death.
Today, you can find a wide variety of urns to store cremated remains. Many types of materials are used to create modern urns, including:
- Stainless steel
Different styles, sizes and shapes are available, including the option of storing remains in cremation jewelry.
The Curious History of Pet Cremation Urns
You might assume that the cremation of pets is a new practice, but you would be wrong. In fact, pet cremation is a business that dates back centuries.
The first evidence of pet cremation was discovered in Palestine, with the remains of more than 1,000 dogs found in urns dating back to 332 BC. Even Alexander the Great memorialized his beloved Mastiff with an elaborate funeral procession and memorial stone.
While not unheard of, pet cremation and burials were relatively rare until modern times. During the Medieval period, for example, it was frowned upon to show affection to pets and little care was given to way their bodies were handled after death.
Pet cremation wouldn’t become a popular practice until the late 1800s.
The oldest pet crematorium opened in the U.S. in 1896, and today, cremation is a standard, accepted practice for handling pet remains. Many owners store their beloved pet’s ashes in ornate urns to memorialize their animal companions.
The pet cremation practice isn’t limited to the U.S. Pet owners across the world are choosing to cremate their animals and store their remains in pet cremation urns.
How Long Do Ashes Last in an Urn?
Urns have a long and rich history, but you may be wondering whether ancient urns uncovered at archaeological sites still contained the ashes of the deceased.
How long do cremains last in an urn? Ashes can last for as long as the urn has a proper seal. Cremation practices of the past were different from today, but archaeologists have found preserved cremains dating back hundreds of years.
Cremation remains as a preferred method of disposing human remains, and urns serve as not only a chamber to store a loved one’s ashes, but also to memorialize the deceased. Today, people choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including environmental, practical and hygienic.
The cremation practice is one that spans civilizations and religions across the globe and throughout history. While urns may have had different appearances, decorations and roles in funeral rites, they have always served as a way to honor and remember the dead.
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