Last year, my church sent out a survey to find out what the membership thought about building a columbarium (a structure of vaults lined with recesses for cinerary urns) on the church grounds. While I was intrigued, I was also quite surprised. It’s a Southern Baptist church, although we rarely talk about our…Baptist-ness.

Cremation is something Southern Baptists would have not even considered 50 years ago. It wasn’t even talked about when I was younger.

The Church’s changing attitude and the fact that cremation is becoming a more popular option got me thinking. What is the history of cremation and why was it considered taboo for so long in the U.S.?

The Morrocoan-style columbarium at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif. is a unique place. They even have a Summer Solstice jazz concert there every year.

The Morrocoan-style columbarium at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif. is a unique place. They even have a Summer Solstice jazz concert there every year.

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History points back to the last Stone Age around 3,000 B.C. as when primitive forms of cremation began. It was quite popular with the upper classes in Ancient Rome and Greece. For the wealthy, remains were often kept in a larnax, a small coffin or ash-chest, usually made of decorated terracotta. Occasionally, these vessels were made of precious metals, as with the fourth-century B.C. gold larnax found at Vergina, in Northern Greece. It was in a tomb believed to be that of King Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

The golden larnax (or ash-chest) believed to be that of King Philip of Macedon. Photo courtesy of the Vergina Museum, Greece.

The golden larnax (or ash-chest) believed to be that of King Philip of Macedon. Photo courtesy of the Vergina Museum, Greece.

Cremation via the use of a crematorium became an option in Western Europe during the 19th century. In 1874, Sir Henry Thompson, surgeon to Queen Victoria, visited Italy and saw a demonstration of equipment used for carrying out cremations. Impressed by the demonstration, he invited some like-minded friends to form the Cremation Society of England in order to promote the use of cremation as an alternative to burial.

The Society bought some land next to a cemetery in Woking with the intention of building a crematorium on the site but local opposition meant they had to halt work. However, an event in 1884 changed the situation. Dr. William Price, a very eccentric doctor who claimed to be the Arch druid of a lost Celtic tribe, cremated his son, who had died at the age of only five months, on the local hillside. Price was prosecuted but found not guilty. This ruling effectively made cremation legal and led to the Cremation Act of 1902.

After Price died in 1891, his family sold tickets to his cremation, and it is estimated that a crowd of 20,000 witnessed the ritual. Because Price was such a controversial, eccentric personality, when the fire was exhausted, attendees picked through the ashes for souvenirs.

After Price died in 1891, his family sold tickets to his cremation, and it is estimated that a crowd of 20,000 witnessed the ritual. Because Price was such a controversial personality, when the fire was exhausted, attendees picked through the ashes for souvenirs.

As time passed, cremation became more acceptable and popular in England. Because land for burial had become scarce over the centuries, it made sense to many people. In 2008, statistics show that about 72 percent of people in the U.K. chose cremation.

Here in the U.S., attitudes about cremation are different. Christianity, by and large, has been the major religion. Opposition to cremation centered on the Christian belief that it was a pagan practice. A major argument against cremation by Christians has been anticipation of a bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, for example, talks about a “resurrection body” in 1 Corinthians 15. As a result, many Christians choose to stick with burial so the body is kept intact.

The Catholic Church forbade members to cremate for many years. However, in 1963, the Vatican lifted the ban on cremation. But the cremated remains or “cremains” could not be present at the funeral mass. Burial was (and still is) the preferred method for Catholics. In 1997, the Vatican approved new liturgical norms allowing for the cremated remains to be present at a funeral mass and the remains are to be treated with the same reverence as a whole body in a casket. However, the spreading of cremated ashes (or keeping them in an urn in a home) is still technically forbidden by the Catholic Church.

According to the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society, more than 42 percent of Catholics are cremated after death. Because the Church forbids scattering ashes or keeping ashes in homes, families making this choice have had few options. Because of that cemeteries like St. Joseph Cemetery in Cincinnati are expanding their columbarium options.

According to the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society, more than 42 percent of Catholics are cremated after death. Because the Church forbids scattering ashes or keeping ashes in homes, families making this choice have had few options. Because of that cemeteries like St. Joseph Cemetery in Cincinnati are expanding their columbarium options. Photo courtesy of St. Joseph Cemetery.

Cremation’s become more popular in the U.S. for many reasons. Our multi-cultural society includes a much broader range of religious affiliations and for some, the absence of any belief system at all. We’re are also a much more mobile society. Many people move from the state of their birth to another state then to another and another. This negates the existence of a “family cemetery” in which to bury family members. There’s also a growing interest in environmentally-friendly means of disposing of the human body. Burying a body full of toxic chemicals that will eventually leak into the groundwater supply is not appealing to a lot of people.

However, the biggest motivator in the last several years is the hit the American economy took in 2008. According to The National Funeral Directors Association, the national median cost of a funeral (including the service, casket, fees, etc.) for calendar year 2012 was $7,045. If a vault is included, something that is usually required by a cemetery, the median cost is $8,343. I think the NFDA low-balled that figure considerably. Cremation, with or without a memorial service and entombment in a columbarium, is much less expensive.

The Neptune Society now owns the Oddfellows Columbarium, built in 1897.  They restored it and have added on to it. The photo above is a niche from the old section and one below is from the new "Hall of Olympians" section. Photos courtesy of Patty Sokolecki-Smoot & Frederick Smoot.

The Neptune Society now owns the Oddfellows Columbarium in San Francisco, built in 1897. They restored it and have added on to it. The photo above is a niche from the old section and one below is from the new “Hall of Olympians” section. Photos courtesy of Patty Sokolecki-Smoot & Frederick Smoot.

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According to the Cremation Association of North America, in 2011, an average of 40 percent of Americans chose cremation. Considering that cremation, on a national average, stood at 33 percent in 2006 shows that the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Some states are more accepting of it than others. For Georgia, about 31 percent chose cremation while almost 56 percent did in California (in 2010).

Still, the Jewish community does not usually cremate. There are some Reform congregations who have embraced it but it is not common. In Jewish law, the human body belongs to its Creator. It is “on loan” to the person, who is the guardian of the body, but he or she has no right to deface it in any way. So, the body must be “returned” in its entirety, just as it was given.

And let’s be honest. Despite the fears of funeral directors across the country, traditional ground burial is not going to stop anytime soon. Especially here in the Southeast. The attitude of “my great-grandpa did it, my grandpa did it so I am doing it, too” still persists. While I’ve become much more open to the option of cremation, I’m still pretty set on traditional burial when my time approaches.

My church did choose to go forward with building a columbarium and it’s just about finished. It’s not very big but is a quiet little area on the property, complete with a tree and a few benches. I’m glad it’s there for those who want it.

But I can’t see myself, even if I chose cremation, having my remains put in an urn to go into a niche. I’d rather they be buried in a cemetery with a unique stone marker, maybe. Something with a swan on it, because they are my favorite bird in the world.

As a cemetery hopper, that seems like the right thing to do.

 

I have always loved swans. They're such graceful, majestic creatures.

I have always loved swans. They’re such graceful, majestic creatures.

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