We recently wrote about the Cremation Association of North America’s report on the deathcare figures for 2018. As we noted, the growth of cremation as the preferred method of final disposition is truly staggering — nine states have exceeded the 70 percent level of cremation, while the rest of the country is also turning in this direction in numbers that were not predicted just a few years ago.
During this heady expansion period, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it took cremation over 100 years to catch on at all.
The first modern cremation in the United States took place in 1876.
From that period until almost the 1960’s, crematories were in what has now come to be called the Memorial Phase or the Memorial Idea.
These terms refer to the way cremation was practiced — it reflected the very roots of the operation which go back to time immemorial.
The Greeks and the Romans stored their cremains in urns and other receptacles that were made of fine material: our urns were equally well constructed, usually made of brass.
The ancient civilizations strongly believed in proper placement of cremains. The Greeks used Tumuli, Egyptians built pyramids, Romans created columbaria.
In case you are not familiar with the term Tumuli, it is a mound of earth and/or stones raised over graves. It effectively creates a tomb. These mounds date far back: you can read about them in Beowulf or the Iliad. Tumuli stretch across civilizations from prehistoric times.
In the Memorial period in this country, we followed the placement tradition by interring cremains in the ground or in churches.
Keep in mind that during this Memorial time, the idea of granulating as part of the cremation process, scattering the ashes in various locations or even home retention were ideas whose time had not come.
The other component of the Memorial era, which also mimicked previous practices, was the notion that the receptacle for the cremains required identification. So urns were inscribed with not only names, but frequently dates, appropriate sayings or remembrances. The metal tags used to identify cremains today was not even on the radar screen.
But then things began to change, especially in the 1960’s. Given that society wide period of disruption, many traditional practices, many ingrained notions, were re-examined. Such was the case in deathcare.
Cremation itself was being viewed as a less radical final disposition — it was no longer being seen as a complete violation of societal norms, more of a mainstream alternative.
The cremation process changed during this time – in fact, the final disposition itself changed.
Probably the most noteworthy change in the process was the widespread use of granulation.
Once the actual burning is accomplished, the cremains are then put into a processing machine where the bones are reduced to a consistency not unlike sand.
Those of us in cremation these days can hardly imagine returning bone fragments to a client — that is problematic from a number of perspectives. What is returned is now a much safer and more aesthetic product.
Metal tags are also included in a temporary urn with appropriate identification codes so that the customer knows that the cremains she/he are given belong to their loved one.
Urns also changed — going from bronze to aluminum, wood and other materials in between.
Finally, the notion of scattering and home retention started to become popular: both of these options are not without disagreement, both within and outside of the deathcare community. More on this in a future blog.
This is an overview of the changes taking place in our field. Whatever these issues, it is abundantly clear that cremation is here to stay. And getting more popular every day.