A Short History of Cremations in the United States

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When you choose our cremations services, you may wonder what the history of cremation is in the United States. As cremation becomes a more common final disposition method in our country, many Americans consider it to be a new funeral trend. Most Americans – because of our particular culture – believe that burials have always been the most common final disposition method around the world.

However, burying the dead is actually a newer funeral option than cremation. Historians believe that cremations may go back as far as 3000 BC, but archeologists have identified urns from the Bronze Age (2500 BC – 1000 BC) in northern Europe, Britain, Portugal and Spain, which indicates that the practice of cremation spread widely across Europe during this time period.

But it was not until the time of Homer and The Iliad (around 800 BC) that cremation became the most common way to dispose of the death across the globe. This is largely due to war and disease.

With highly infectious diseases like bubonic plague, disposition by fire was the only way to make sure that the disease would not spread. Wars multiplied across the world as civilizations advanced and moved into new territories. The bodies of soldiers were too far from home to transport them back, so cremation was the best option.

By 395 A.D., at the pinnacle of the Roman Empire, cremation was widely used as a means of disposing of the dead. Ancient Romans stored the cremation remains of their loved ones in beautiful, highly decorated urns, much like many people do now.

Early Christians, however, did not agree with the practice of cremation. They based this largely on what they believed were Jewish practices, as many Jews were among the early Christian converts. These early Christians used the Old Testament as their basis for the prohibition of burning the dead.

The Bible doesn’t prohibit the practice of cremation as a means of final disposition method anywhere in the Old Testament (or the New Testament). What is prohibited is the practice of burning people alive as part of pagan religious rituals.

In 400 AD, when Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of Rome, the practice of cremation (which was associated with pagans) almost disappeared and the burial of the dead became the official Christian final disposition method.

Modern cremation began in 1873, when a new cremation chamber was displayed at the Vienna Exposition. Once again, cremations emerged as an alternative to traditional burial both in Europe and in America.

In Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876, Dr. Julius Lemoyne built the first American cremation chamber. The second cremation chamber was built in 1884 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Crematories started spreading across the country very slowly, however. There were only 20 crematories in the entire country in 1900.

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However, when Dr. Hugo Erichsen formed the Cremation Association of American, the practice of cremation spread more rapidly through the United States. Using the logic of the ancients, the doctors who were part of the association promoted cremation because they were concerned about the spread of diseases from buried bodies.

The 1920’s saw cremation scientifically proven to a safe and hygienic way to dispose of remains, which further increased cremations across the nation. However, it has only been in the last 50 or 60 years that cremations have begun to keep pace with, and are projected to outpace, traditional burials in America.

If you’d like to learn more about the cremations services we offer, you can depend on our compassionate and experienced team at Hopler & Eschbach Funeral Home to help you.