In many countries and across different religions, people practice the act of burning human bodies when death claims the said bodies physically. Today, there are many existing definitions and explanations for the practice, but to better understand it, it is important to know its origin and how it has evolved by and by.
So what is this practice anyway and where did it actually originate?
Cremation is more than just the simple act of burning a dead human body. It is actually done in a very scientific way that includes vaporization, oxidation, and of course, high-temperature burning. This whole process should be completely and thoroughly done because a dead human body needs to be broken down into basic chemical compounds (such as gases, minerals, etc.) in order to be reduced to ashes.
It is also significant to bear in mind that cremating is done, first and foremost, to dispose of a dead body into ashes quicker than the traditional burial.
However, there are methods called “primary” and “secondary” cremation. Primary refers to the burning of dead bodies on the spot, while secondary refers to on the spot burning plus burying of the remains and the dead person’s properties on another site. These terms are oftenly used in archaeology, or the study of human history and prehistory.
The earliest cremated body ever recorded was that of the Mungo Lady in Australia roughly 20,000 years ago. Although only parts of her and not her entire body was found to had been cremated, her body that was found in Lake Mungo in Australia still holds the record for the first ever burned dead body.
Documents and academic papers also show that several other countries have been cremating dead bodies since 8000 BC. Cremating bodies was said to be the final stage in the rites of passage in China, which was also adapted by Greece, Sweden, and other parts of Europe later on.
Religions have also played an important role in the history of cremation. In religions common in Asia like Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, it is an accepted and mandated practice. This is because there religions believe that the human body is a vessel which carries the soul. Thus, when death comes, the soul is detached and freed from the vessel. The dead body is also believed to be an offering to Agni, the Hindus’ god of fire.
However, other religions also oppose and actually forbid cremating bodies. Islam, for instance, has different and specific ways in disposing the human body. Burning it is not one of them. Judaism also traditionally opposed the practice, along with preserving the bodies of the dead (like mummification). However, it later on allowed it, thanks to the so-called “liberal Jews.”
Christianity and Catholicism, on the other hand, do not strictly forbid the act, but they discourage it. Both religions prefer burying the body over burning it for the simple reason of letting the body go back to ashes the “natural way.” However, as time evolves, more and more Christians and Catholics prefer to cremate dead bodies for practical reasons.
Over the years, the attitude towards the practice of burning dead bodies as an act of disposing them have changed and became more favorable. During the late 1800s, a certain Professor Brunetti presented a modern way of cremating bodies at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. He took into consideration not only the cultural and traditional aspects of the practice, but also the practical and hygienic aspects of it. It was when modern cremation, or the thing people do now, was born.
Today, cremation is practiced in over 31 countries. From the Mungo Lady in Australia, the practice has definitely evolved along with the human race.