Disposing of the dead - Cremation

Cremation is the disposal of a corpse by fire. It is an ancient and widespread practice, second only to burial. Some ancient cultures believed that fire was a purifying agent, and that cremation would light the way of the deceased to another world, or to prevent the return of the dead.

The first cremation at the Springvale Necropolis

 © Courtesy of Springvale Necropolis

Modern cremation

The earliest known method of cremation was the log pyre. In more elaborate practices, pitch and gums were added to the wood. In modern crematoriums open fires are not used; instead, the body is placed in a chamber where intense heat transforms it in an hour or two to a few kilograms of white, powdery ash. Disposal of the ashes varies in different parts of the world and includes;

  • scattering in a garden or some other preferred spot
  • preservation in a decorative urn and kept at home
  • taken to a cemetery for burial in a small plot or placement in a columbarium.

The revival of interest in cremation in Europe and the United States began in the late 1800s with the rise of large cities and the realisation of the health hazard associated with crowded cemeteries. It was not until 1884 that a British court first ruled cremation a legal procedure. Soon after many other European countries also legalised the practice. The first crematorium in Australia was built in 1925 at Rookwood, New South Wales.

Today many Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic church allow cremation. The Pope lifted the ban on cremations on the 5th July, 1963 and in 1966 made it permissible for Roman Catholic priests to conduct a cremation service at a crematorium.

While cremation is forbidden by Orthodox Jews and Muslims, it is the usual method of disposal for Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists.

In some Asian countries cremation is available to only a favoured few: in Tibet it is usually reserved for the high lamas; in Laos it is for those who die 'fortunately' (ie., of natural causes at the end of a peaceful and prosperous life).

Viking cremation

Until the arrival of Christianity in the 11th century, Scandinavians practised both cremation and burial. Following on from the earlier practice of burials in ship-like graves, in the Viking period (beginning in the 9th century) the deceased was placed in a ship, which was either buried in the earth or burnt on a pyre, or towed out to sea and then set on fire. Death was seen as a journey and the deceased was accompanied by all the goods, which would be useful in the afterlife, including weapons, animals and servants.

Indigenous Australian practices

Prior to European arrival, Aboriginal mortuary practices varied considerably across Australia. In the Sydney region, British settlers noted that cremation and burial were the most common methods of disposal. New evidence from Lake Mungo in Western New South Wales shows that Indigenous Australians were cremating their dead at least 40,000 years ago.

During the 1801-1802 expedition to Tasmania, Nicolas Baudin noticed that ashes or calcined bones were carefully preserved and carried about by some people. Later accounts describe ashes and relics being kept in little skin pouches, often hung around the neck of close relatives.

Cremation in Japan

In Japan, the night before the funeral, the very close relatives hold a special ceremony called 'Otsuya' to farewell the body. We burn candles and incense and stay awake all night, just in case the person wakes up. Monks also visit to pray and give the person a Buddhist name.

After the body has been cremated, relatives each take a bone with chopsticks and place it in a white pottery jar. This way we send a message that we haven't abandoned the body. The voice box bone is a special bone because it is the shape of Buddha sitting in prayer. After 49 days the bones can go in a gravestone at the cemetery. Hiroko Ishihara, 55 and Keiko Hosokawa, 49, Sydney

Hindu cremation

In Hindu religion, fire is considered a sacred gateway to the spiritual world. Cremation of the body has to occur within six hours of the person's death in the simplest ceremonial way.

We don't have open fires in Australia but we use the consecrated fire as we do back home. Using clarified butter, the eldest son kindles a fire in a terracotta pot at home. The fire is then taken to the crematorium and put on top of the coffin as it is pushed into the chamber. We chant sets of mantras to cleanse the body and indicate to the soul that it can proceed to the spiritual world. We then release the ashes into flowing water. Purohit Rama Chandra Athreiya, Domestic Hindu Priest

Cremation is the typical form of disposal of a corpse for Hindus. Many devout Hindus are cremated on the burning ghats of the holy city of Varanasi. The waterfront of Varanasi is lined with concrete and marble slabs on which pyres are erected. The remains are then either placed into urns or put into the sacred Ganges.

Cremation in Bali

Balinese religion is based on respect for and worship of God and ancestors, and is a combination of Hindu elements and indigenous Balinese culture. After death, the body must be dissolved and returned to its original elements. The cremation ritual is a purification rite which frees the roh (soul or spirit) from its temporary earthly house and facilitates its journey to its next existence.

After a death, the whole village helps with preparations for the cremation. The mayat (dead body) is laid out in a special house to be bathed and prepared. Meals are prepared and offered to the deceased as normal. Around the body and entrance to the house are placed damar kuranung (lamps), which notify people of the death and help facilitate the soul's journey and to keep the person's memory alive.

The night before the cremation, holy water is collected from the temple and used in preparation of the body and during the cremation. Any important ceremonies which have been missed during the deceased's lifetime must be carried out prior to cremation. Some Balinese are buried until the cremation can be organised or to wait for an auspicious date. The bones are exhumed a few days before the cremation then prepared in the same way as the whole body.

All the village unites for the cremation, which is a joyous occasion. After cremation, the ashes are placed in the sea - achieving final separation of the soul from the body.

After someone dies in Bali, the body is either put in the temple or in a special house. The family brings cakes, coffee or whatever we cook for them just as if they were alive. This helps us keep contact with the soul which stays around the body for three days after the death. The whole village helps with the cremation, making offerings and food. We always try to be happy, as this makes it easier for the soul to leave. Mayuni Utara, 34, Sydney. Originally from Muncan, Bali

The size and elaborateness of the cremation ceremony reflects the wealth of the deceased's family. Since cremations are large and expensive festivals, sometimes the body is temporarily buried until the family can afford the cremation. The cremation may take place years after the death of the individual.

Ider-ider paintings tell a story using a sequence of scenes on a horizontal strip in the style of a comic. They were tied under the eaves of temple or palace pavilions and read by walking around the building. This segment shows the cremation of Abimanyu, the heroic son of Arjuna, who died from being pierced by 100 arrows. One of his wives, Uttari, is pregnant and not permitted to join her husband in death, but his other wife Sundari leaps from the ramp into the fire, where her soul is released and flies upward in the form of a bird.

The tika is a complex 210-day-per-year calendar mainly used by Balinese ritual experts to advise the Balinese villager of the most appropriate day for undertaking any important activity, such as a cremation

In the past, an anthropomorphic (human-like) figure made from Chinese coins and cotton thread was placed lengthwise on the body after death. Called the 'measure', it ensured that after rebirth, the deceased's bones would be in the right dimensions and arrangement. Today, Chinese coins, rice and other offerings are thrown from the cremation tower as it travels to the cremation ground.

Cremation in Australia

Of the 128,500 people that die each year in Australia, 54 per cent are cremated - this figure is increasing by half a per cent each year. Around the world, other percentages include:

  • UK - 70.70%
  • USA - 27.12%
  • Japan - 99.41%
  • Italy - 6.62%
  • Ireland - 5.40% (estimate only)
  • Ghana -1.78%

(Pharos International - Winter 2002 'International Cremation Statistics' - based on 2001 figures)

Cremation has been more readily accepted in some European and Asian countries: the figure in England, Germany, and Denmark, for example, is more than 50 percent. In Japan, where cremation was illegal in 1875, the practice has become almost universal.

In late 19th century Australia, the modern cremation movement campaigned for cremation on the basis of public health, economic and aesthetic grounds. However, cremation was slow to gain acceptance. In 1891, South Australia became the first state to legalise cremations and build a crematorium - West Terrace Cemetery in 1903. In Victoria, a cremation bill was passed in 1903, formalising and regulating the practice, and limiting it to approved cemeteries. In New South Wales, a bill was not passed until 1925.

Rookwood is the oldest continuously operating crematorium in Australia. It began operation in 1925 and now performs around 2500 cremations per year

The cremation process

The casket is put into the top level of the cremator's chamber and then burnt. All ornaments and fittings are left on the casket, except the name plate. The fittings are burnt with the coffin as they are typically made of plastic. When the body is burnt, bones and calcium deposits drop through to the second level of the chamber.

It takes one to one and a half hours to burn a body at a heat source of 900 degrees Celsius. About 80kg will burn each hour.

Only one body is cremated at a time - the cremator's chamber fits only one casket. When the remains have cooled, they are scanned for metallic prostheses and coffin components. A magnet is sometimes used to remove steel nails and screws.

Bones and calcium deposits are milled down to finer particles in a grinder. The ashes weigh around 2 kg and are available to relatives 24 hours after cremation.

The Black Death

There have been numerous outbreaks of the deadly plague know as the 'black death'. The first epidemic occurred in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The number of deaths was enormous, reaching in various parts of Europe two-thirds or three-quarters of the population. It has been calculated that about 25 million people died from the plague during the great epidemic, which was proportionately a greater toll on life than any other known epidemic or war up to that time.

The population of western Europe did not reach its pre-1351 level again until the beginning of the 16th century.


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