The History of Cremation Ashes Urns

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The History of Cremation Ashes Urns

An urn is a vase, often with a cover that usually has a somewhat narrowed neck above a rounded body and a footed pedestal. Describing a vessel as an ‘urn’, as opposed to a vase or other terms, generally reflects its use rather than any particular shape or origin. The term is especially often used for funerary urns, vessels used in burials, either to hold the cremated ashes or as grave goods, but is used in many other contexts. Large sculpted vases are often called urns, whether placed outdoors, in gardens or as architectural ornaments on buildings, or kept inside.

Cremation urn means a container where the cremated remains or cremation ashes received after cremating a dead body can be stored. Cremation ashes urns have been used throughout the history of mankind.

Cremation has a longer history than most people expect. Cremation is one of the longest standing processes and memorial traditions in our history. Cremation has long been a controversial topic throughout human history. Some cultures and religions support cremation, some find it lugubrious and even go as far as to say that it is an inappropriate disposition of the human body.

Interesting to note is that while many religions are up in the air as to whether cremation is acceptable or not - even to this day - cremation was part of the memorial traditions in the stone age. We look at the cremation process throughout history.

Cremation urns
Cremation urns (also called funerary urns, cinerary urns or burial urns) have been used by many civilizations. After death, corpses are cremated, and the ashes are collected and put in an urn. According to different research works carried out in different corners of the world to study the role of cremation, its existence, and the various cultural and religious practices for cremation and so on, it has been found that cremation urns have got a significant role in different cultures. The history of urns can be traced back to many thousands of years.

The earliest evidence of deceased's ashes being collected into urns was found in China. Pottery urns, dating from about 7000 BC, have been found in an early Jiahu site. Other early finds are in Laoguantai, Shaanxi. There are urns unearthed over the Yangshao (5000–3000 BC) areas. The burial urns were used mainly for children and sporadically for adults.

The oldest evidence of cremations has been found in Europe. Today scholars generally agree that cremation probably began in any real sense during the Neolithic or Stone Age around 3000 B.C. and most likely in Europe and the Near East. As evidenced by particularly informative finds in western Russia among the Slavic peoples. Many artefacts from this time have been uncovered in the countries, including pottery cremation urns. The pottery is not overly ornate from this time age, understandably, due to primitive tools and materials. Cremation was a popular way to dispose a decaying body and later on the ashes were stored in an cremation urn. This was done to show respect towards the deceased.

Cremation during the Bronze Age
With the advent of the Bronze Age (2500 to 1000 B.C.) cremation moved into North America, the British Isles and into what is now Spain and Portugal. Archaeologist found decorative pottery urns in western Russia among the Slavic population. Cremation cemeteries developed in Hungary and northern Italy, spreading to northern Europe and even Ireland.

The Urn field culture, a late Bronze Age culture of central Europe, takes its name from its large cemeteries of urn burials. The discovery of a Bronze Age urn burial in Norfolk, England, prompted Sir Thomas Browne to describe the antiquities found. He expanded his study to survey burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, and published it as Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658).

Cremation during the Mycenaean Age
In the Mycenaean Age (1000 B.C. to 800 B.C.) cremation became an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial custom due to various health reasons. It became customary in Greece. During the Grecian trend, the Greeks used to perform elaborate burial practices where urns were used. Cremation was preferred as a quick way to handle dead bodies of the soldiers from the battlefield in this battle-ravaged country. They accepted the need for cremations because it was seen as the most hygienic type of funeral. Cremation has always been seen by many cultures as one of the most hygienic dispositions of human remains, especially after plaques ravaged many countries. This belief still holds to this day.

Following this Grecian trend, the early Romans probably embraced cremation somewhere 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.

Cremation rapidly gained popularity as a form of disposition of the human body. By the time of the Roman Empire (27 B.C. to 395 A.D.) cremation was widely practiced and cremated remains were generally stored in elaborate urns and these urns were later on stored within a columbarium-like building. Cremation was a common practice particularly among the more honored citizens (e.g., military personnel, the upper class, and imperial family members).

Ashes were typically placed in a painted Greek vase, the most common was a lekythos. Lekythos vases were also used for holding oil in funerary rituals. Romans placed the urns in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, dovecote). The interior of a dovecote usually has niches to house doves. Columbariums were often built partly or completely underground. Cremation urns were also commonly used in early Anglo Saxon England and in many Pre-Columbian cultures.

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 sepulchre entombment was preferred.

Cremation during Christianization
Cremation became rare with the early Christians who considered it against their culture. During this time (400 A.D.) as a result of Constantine's Christianization of the Empire burial became more popular. Early Christianity discouraged cremation. The two main reasons for this were the influence of Judaism with its opposition to cremation, and the desire to obliterate pagan rituals of fire sacrifice and human sacrifice.

For the next thousands of years after the rise of Christianity few urns were used. Burial was the accepted mode of disposition throughout Europe except for rare instances of plague or war. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims discourage cremation even in the present times.

Modern cremation
Modern cremation, as we know it, actually began only over a century ago, after years of experimentation into the development of a dependable chamber. When Italian Professor named Brunetti perfected and displayed a design of cremation urns at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. On the other hand in England, Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir Henry Thompson fostered the use of cremation in the British Isles. He founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. Cremation was more commonly practiced in 1876, when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1878, Woking, England and Gotha, Germany were home to the first European crematories in Europe.

The second crematory opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1884. As with many of the first crematories, the Lancaster crematory was owned and operated by a cremation society. Among the other forces behind the openings of the early crematories were the Protestant clergy, who desired to reform burial practices, and the medical profession, who were concerned with health conditions around early cemeteries. Cremation made a resurgence in the 1870s after also the hygiene benefits were once again promoted. The return was not smooth at first but changing attitudes caused a huge rise in the number of people opting for it.

After the early crematories of Pennsylvania, others were constructed in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles. The number of crematories in operation would reach 20 by 1900. There were almost 52 crematories in the North America by 1913. Thus, with the increasing rate of cremations, the demand for cremation or memorial urns also increased as a great way to store remains. In the same year this growing number of crematories was organized under the Cremation Association of America by Dr. Hugo Erichsen.

In some later European traditions, a king's heart, and sometimes other organs, could be placed in one or more urns upon his death, as happened with King Otto of Bavaria in 1916, and buried in a different place from the body, to symbolize a particular affection for the place by the departed.

In the UK the number of cremations each year now outnumbers burials. The practice is used across Europe and has continued to grow in the US too.

The cremation rate in the United States has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 3.56% in 1960, 48.6% in 2015 to 59% in 2022 to grow to 65.2% by 2027 and projections from the Cremation Association of North America a rate of 74.4% in 2022 and forecasting a rate of 78.8% by 2027. The rates vary considerably among the states with the highest rates (over 80%) being reported in the Western United States with the lowest rates (around 30%) being reported in the Southern United States.

The cremation rate in the United Kingdom has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 34.7% in 1960 to 82.4% in 2022.

The cremation rate in Australia is similar to other English speaking countries like Canada. Records show that slightly over 69% of all deaths were cremated in 2021. New Zealand's rate is slightly higher than Australia's, with 75% of all deaths being cremations in 2019.

Cremation has been on the increase in Ireland in the last decade. This is largely due to both the expense of burial plots and their (lack of) availability. Today, over 20% of deaths in Ireland now involve cremations.

In contemporary Japan, high costs, sanitation, and lack of space have seen a rise in cremation to almost 100 percent. And although burial is still permitted, municipal governments, such as Tokyo and Osaka, have ordinances requiring cremation only.

Small land mass, growing populations and shrinking space are causing critical issues for cemeteries in locations from Rio de Janeiro to New York to London and Hong Kong with local governments all trying to come up with solutions to this growing problem.

The growing trend toward responsible environmental stewardship and the population overcrowding in older cities and smaller countries are making cremation a more attractive alternative to burial.

In today’s society, families are more transient than in the past, making hometown burial or burial in the family plot impractical. Economics are playing a large role in changing attitudes. The cost of cremation is a fraction of the price for funerals and burials, with prices for interment increasing exponentially in crowded urban areas. It’s becoming a popular method of death ceremony today.

As the number of cremations has increased, there has also been a rise in the demand for suitable urns. Since the Greek and Roman eras people have stored the ashes of a deceased loved one in a decorative urn. Today due to the increasing preference of cremation over burial, the popularity of cremation urn in the market is very high. As it is not only an acceptable form of disposition, but also less expensive than traditional ground burials, and the popularity of cremation is only matched by the constantly evolving styles of cremation ash vessels. In the USA even the Cremation Society of North America recommends the use of cremation urns as the preferred way of disposal. In the market, you can find urns made from different materials such as ceramic (still the most used material for cremation urns) marble, bronze, wood, brass, stainless steel and glass. Also urns are available in different shapes, colours and designs but each of them are designed to hold the ashes indefinitely as a form of reverence for the departed. In fact, there are so many cremation urn types, that they are often classified by the style and functionality, rather than materials.

The type of urn you choose shows your respect towards the deceased. But in no way it means that you need to buy an expensive urn. A budget friendly urn can also be good in design and shape. You can keep the cremation urn at home, scatter it in a location of significance, or bury it in a cemetery. No matter what you choose to do with the urn, cremation urn will memorialize the life of a loved one in a beautiful manner.

Many religions that were previously against cremation have accepted it as a tradition. Cremation can also offer the same options for families that traditional burials do, such as viewing of a body or even burial in a ground plot in a cemetery. Whatever the reason, cremation gives us an alternative for the farewell of our dearly departed in a dignified and time honoured way.

Besides the traditional funeral or cremation ashes urns, it may also be possible to keep a part of the ashes of the loved one or beloved pet in keepsake urns or ash jewellery, although this might be banned in some localities as the law of certain countries may prohibit keeping any human remains in a private residence. It is even, in some places, possible to place the ashes of two people in so-called companion urns.

Scattering of ashes has become popular over recent decades. As a result, urns designed to scatter the ashes from have been developed. Some are biodegradable.

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