Scholars today quite generally agree that cremation probably began in any real sense during the early Stone Age – around 3000 B.C. – and most likely in Europe and the Near East.
During the late Stone Age cremation began to spread across northern Europe, as evidenced by particularly informative finds of decorative pottery urns in western Russia among the Slavic peoples.
With the advent of the Bronze Age – 2500 to 1000 B.C. – cremation moved into the British Isles and into what is now Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries for cremation developed in Hungary and northern Italy, spreading to northern Europe and even Ireland.
In the Mycenaean Age – circa 1000 B.C. – cremation became an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial customs. In fact, it became the dominant mode of disposition by the time of Homer in 800 B.C. and was actually encouraged for reasons of health and expedient burial of slain warriors in this battle-ravaged country.
Following this Grecian trend, the early Romans probably embraced cremation some time around 600 B.C. and it apparently became so prevalent that an official decree had to be issued in the mid 5th Century against the cremation of bodies within the city.
By the time of the Roman Empire – 27 B.C. to 395 A.D. – it was widely practiced, and cremated remains were generally stored in elaborate urns, often within columbarium-like buildings.
Prevalent though the practice was among the Romans, cremation was rare with the early Christians who considered it pagan and in the Jewish culture where traditional sepulcher entombment was preferred.
However, by 400 A.D., as a result of Constantine’s Christianization of the Empire, earth burial had completely replaced cremation except for rare instances of plague or war, and for the next 1,500 years remained the accepted mode of disposition throughout Europe.
Modern cremation, as we know it, actually began only a little over a century ago, after years of experimentation into the development of a dependable chamber. When Professor Brunetti of Italy finally perfected his model and displayed it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, the cremation movement started almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the British Isles the movement was fostered by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson. Concerned with hazardous health conditions, Sir Henry and his colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The first crematories in Europe were built in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany.
Meanwhile in North America, although there had been two recorded instances of cremation before 1800, the real start began in 1876 when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania.
In 1884 the second crematory was opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and, as was true of many of the early crematories, it was owned and operated by a cremation society. Other forces behind early crematory openings were Protestant clergy who desired to reform burial practices and the medical profession concerned with health conditions around early cemeteries.
Crematories soon sprang up in Buffalo, New York City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles. By 1900 there were already 20 crematories in operation, and by the time that Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded the Cremation Association of America in 1913, there were 52 crematories in North America and over 10,000 cremations took place in that one year.
In 1975 the name was changed to the Cremation Association of North America to be more indicative of the membership composition of the United States and Canada. At that date there were over 425 crematories and nearly 150,000 cremations.
What is Cremation?
Many people think of cremation as a burning of the body which results in ashes. In actuality, cremation is a process of extreme dehydration and evaporation created with intense heat which reduces the composition of the body to bone fragments. These fragments are then further processed into a powdery substance called cremated remains.
In Maine, there is a 48 hour waiting period between the time of death and the time when cremation may take place. There are six crematories in Maine, located in Auburn, (2) Bangor, Portland, Saco and Presque Isle.
Cremation takes place in a chamber called a retort. Each retort is only large enough to hold one cremation containter at one time. The cremation container is placed in the retort which is then heated to a temperature of 1600 degrees farenheit. This high level of heat produces the state of extreme dehydration and evaporation which causes the composition of the body to be reduced to bone fragments. This is the first step in the cremation process and takes approximately 2 to 3 hours.
After the cooling period, the cremated remains are removed from the retort. Any non-combustible materials, such as metal, which could not be reduced during cremation, are separated and removed. The bone fragments are then mechanically processed into fine particles. Cremated remains for the average adult weigh from four to eight pounds.
The cremated remains are then placed in an urn or temporary container, depending on the family’s plans. The total time necessary for the entire cremation process in approximately 4 hours. Cremation is a strictly controlled process which takes place in carefully maintained facilities using procedural checkpoints which guard the dignity and individuality of each person.