cremation, disposal of a corpse by fire. It is an ancient and widespread practice, second only to burial. It has been found among the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, among Northern Athapascan bands in Alaska, and among Canadian cultural groups. It was noted in Greece as early as 1000 B.C. and was the predominant mode of corpse disposal by the time of Homer. Until the advent of Christianity as the dominant religion in the Roman empire, cremation was widely accepted.
The practice of cremation in the West gained new favor with the rise of large cities and the realization of the health hazard associated with crowded cemeteries. In the late 19th cent., the practice was legalized in several European countries and the first crematory in the United States was built. The practice is widely accepted in many Western countries today, although it is not as common in the United States.
The use of cremation is often related to a belief in the properties of fire as a purifying agent. Its object may also be to light the way of the deceased to another world, or to prevent the return of the dead. More practical considerations include the fear of depredation by enemies and, in the modern world, the physical shortage of land in urban areas.
The earliest known method of cremation was the log pyre. In more elaborate practices, pitch and gums are added to the wood. Modern crematories expose the corpse not to flames, but to intense heat that reduces the body (except for some bones, which are crushed) to ashes. Disposal of the ashes varies in different parts of the world. Hindus, for whom cremation is the typical form of disposal, place them in urns or put them in a river, preferably the sacred Ganges. Other methods include burial, scattering, or preservation in a decorative urn. Concerns about the release into the air of mercury from dental fillings has led to the need for emission filtration systems at crematories; alternative methods for the disposal of a corpse, such as alkaline hydrolysis (in which the body tissues, except for bone, are dissolved), also have been developed in response.
See also suttee.
For bibliography see funeral customs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.